I want to talk about a new paradigm for “weight control” – one that goes beyond the common belief that the process of arriving at and then maintaining a particular weight is a simple equation of “eat less” and “exercise more.” We know from experience that this equation is too simple. We’ve all known people who eat and eat and stay rail thin. We also know people who say: “I just look at chocolate and it goes straight to my hips.” And those of us who have struggled with our weight find that weight we lose seems to bounce right back. Why is maintaining a particular weight so hard for so many of us?
The punch line of this post is that there are biological mechanisms that intervene and have a huge impact on the “eat less and exercise more” equation. And although our actions do have some impact on these biological mechanisms they are largely out of our direct control. Our body has a body mass index (BMI) set point and our body will defend this set point. So if we lose weight, our body will throw everything it can at us to get back to that weight.
So why am I writing about weight control on a blog about the brain? It turns out our brain has several roles to play. The role that I’d like to talk about today is a part of the brain called the insula or insular cortex. This is the part of the brain that monitors our bodies and let’s us know how we are feeling. So the insula is a key component in the feedback loop that prompts us to take action when we need to. Have you been sitting at your laptop so long you don’t realize you need to go to the bathroom? Have you have strained your neck and eyes by staring at your screen too long? Have you been popping snacks in your mouth while writing? When we reflect, many of us recognize that we have been acting mindlessly. We haven’t been paying attention to our bodies. We haven’t let the insula do its job.
A way to strength our connection to our bodies is through an exercise called a body scan. This is a meditation technique that allows you to relax and feel your body. This is usually done in a systematic way, starting by feeling one part of your body and then working your way around your body. A quick internet search will turn up guided body scan meditations in a variety of lengths beginning with a 3-minute body scan. Try one and see how you like it! The brain is flexible and brain areas that are used will grow. So regularly practicing the body scan meditation can strengthen the insula. With a strong insula, your brain will allow you to feel what is going on in your body.