Weight Loss
Resources
Basic InformationMore InformationLatest NewsQuestions and AnswersLinksBook Reviews
Related Topics

Wellness and Personal Development
Men's Health
Women's Health

Wise Counsel Interview Transcript: An Interview with Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D. on Motivating People to Eat Healthy and Book 'Waistland'

David Van Nuys, Ph.D.

download this podcast return to podcast page

David: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by mentalhelp.net, covering topics in mental health, wellness and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I am a clinical psychologist and your host. On today's show we will be talking with Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., who is the author of the 2007 book "Waistland: The R/evolutionary Science Behind Our Weight and Fitness Crisis".

Dr. Barrett is a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Harvard medical school. She's is the past president of the International Association for the Study of Dreams and editor in chief of the journal "Dreaming". She's also president of the American Psychological Associations' Division 30, the society for psychological hypnosis. Deirdre authored three trade books including the "Committee of Sleep" and was editor of "Trauma and Dreams".

Dr. Barrett's commentary on dreams has been featured on Good Morning America, The Today Show, CNN, Fox, The Discovery Channel and Voice of America. Now, here's the interview. Dr. Deirdre Barrett, welcome to the Wise Counsel podcast.

Dr. Deirdre Barrett: Hi, nice to be here.

David: I'm so glad that you can be here, and I want to talk to you today about your new book "Waistland: The R/evolutionary Science Behind Our Weight and Fitness Crisis". And I should let listeners know that it reads-the title reads a little differently than it perhaps sounds. Waistland is spelt W-A-I-S-T-L-A-N-D, so kind of a play on words there. And also the world "revolutionary" is kind of "R/evolutionary". So it's "Waistland: The R/evolutionary Science Behind Our Weight and Fitness Crisis".

And let me start out by asking you what leads you as a psychologist to write a book about diet and weight loss and so on?

Deirdre: Well the type of psychology I did is health psychology. At Harvard I worked in the behavioral medicine program. So that's applying psychological interventions to help people change health problems.

Even though I was specializing more in the psychological interventions for years, I was waiting for there to be a book that I really liked out there, to recommend on diet, fitness, weight loss and exercise. And I just felt there was so much bad insights in some of the standard diet books that I finally decided to write my own.

David: Well yes, there are so many books that seem to come out each and every year. And all of the advice that we get about foods seems to be so mixed, you know. One year it's OK to eat this, and the next year you should avoid this and eat that, and it's really hard to make sense of it at all.

Deirdre: Well I didn't think that the diet book per se are-the diets are converging on each other, and what I think is the core really from my theoretical perspective, it has to do with eating like our ancestors did, what our bodies are designed to eat. And not all the diets put it that way, but they really are converging more on "eat a lot of fish and the other lean meat, eat a lot of leafy vegetables, eat some fruits..."

You know that really-even Atkins who started with low carbs and Dean Ornish who started with low fat is perhaps a reiteration of both of this diets are-you know Atkins is emphasizing that fish and certain healthier fats are what you should be eating. And that Dean Ornish is emphasizing that refined carbohydrates are not the carbohydrates that you should be going after. And they really converge on each other.

And so, I got to have this many quarrels with what to eat, sort of, diet book and some of the ones that are trying to give advice about, the how to get yourself to do it. It's the listen to your body, or trust your instincts that I think it's just basically wrong.

People would like to think that evolution says that we have instincts that would drive us toward what's good for ourselves. The fallacy there is that that's only true in our ancestral environment. If we were still hunter gathers on the savannah, we could just listen to our instincts. In a modern food setting, all of the substances like fat and sugar and salt that were once scare and we evolved a craving for, we now can concentrate in any amount and eat way too much than we should. So we really need to listen to our intellects. That's what giant brains are there for, is overriding instincts when they are leading us astray.

David: [laughs] So I guess that's the evolutionary part of your book. What kind of evolutionary evidence do we have about what people ate in the past and how it served them? You mentioned fat and salt. What's the evolutionary significance of that?

Deirdre: Yeah, the two things we can look at is science is getting more and more sophisticated about what it can learn about what our ancestors even 10,000 years ago were doing. Just spectral analysis of bones, and what was in their cooking pot, what's buried at their hunting sites. We really do know a lot about what their diet was and also even about diseases they did and didn't have.

Then we can also supplement this with anthropologist studying the few hunter gatherer tribes that are still surviving, and that fairly natural lifestyle. What we find in both cases is -- I mean for a long time we've known what they ate, which is lean game. Animals were much leaner than when we were chasing them all the time than they are now when we're keeping them penned up and fattening them up. And lots and lots of leafy, very fibrous vegetables and way more grains of any kind, much less refined simple carbohydrates.

We certainly ate some fat, but it was mainly in those lean meats, and some sugar but it was mainly in the fruits that we could find. And trace amounts of salt which was important that we get some, but all of those are things that we developed these strong instinctual cravings for because they were rare and we needed to really have motivation to look for them then.

Now we can just concentrate huge chunks of fat and any amount of sugar, or salt that we want into a food so we're making these foods that are-there's the term supernormal stimuli that comes from Niko Tinbergen, and the animal mythology literature that I think is very relevant to our current food. Tinbergen was actually first studying birds and what give them the instinct to sit on their eggs to make them hatch.

David: Yes.

Deirdre: He found that birds that actually laid pale blue, very small eggs, dappled in gray, didn't really realize recognize what a healthy egg was. They had instincts for blueness and that a larger egg was likelier to hatch. That the speckles were good, and indicated these were proper eggs. So Tinbergen can make eggs that were bigger and they'd sit on them over their own eggs, or brighter blue and they would choose them. Where the speckles were darker and more defined the bird would choose these plaster dummies over their own eggs to sit on until he could make these giant day glow blue, black pock-a-doted, just ludicrous looking exaggerations of their eggs. The birds would be sitting on them and sliding off all the time but ignoring their own eggs in the process.

David: Yeah, Yeah.

Deirdre: So that's a supernormal stimuli for the egg sitting instinct. But that's what our food has become. Again, we don't have a full-blown instinct for what is healthy food. We have these very simplistic craves that craves sugar, craves salt, and so we're creating these super-normal stimuli that are exaggerations of what we're suppose to be eating.

David: Now when you talk about supernormal stimuli, this also makes me think of the advertising, the food advertising that we're exposed to. And I have a relative who worked in that industry and he told me how they dress up these foods with lacquers and all sorts of artificial things to make them look mouthwateringly good in that TV commercial that we see. And I wonder if that isn't also kind of a super stimulus that maybe advertisers have researched this and figured out how to motivate us to go after stuff that maybe really isn't that good for us.

Deirdre: Yes, I certainly don't think that that is the sort of "core creates the problem," but it certainly exacerbates it and it happens at two stages. The people who are designing the formulas for the fast-food in the first place are creating a supernormal stimuli food. But then the advertisers exaggerate it even more. They can lacquer things, like you said. They can play with the colors after the fact. So we have this already exaggerated unhealthy food that is then being photographed in these ways that exaggerate that more. But, again, I don't think advertisers or fast-food chains cause the problems, but they certainly aggravate it.

David: OK, well, are we obsessed with food? There seems to be an unending flow of not only diet books but also every issue of Cosmo and similar magazines seem to have the new diet. So it seems like we're obsessed with weight and I'm wondering, "Is there really a problem?" Either a national obesity epidemic or even a global epidemic? Or is it all just sort of psychological skew of self-image?

Deirdre: I think it is absolutely real. And although you hear the cliche about our society being obsessed with diet and weight as if we're over concerned with it. I'm of the dissenting view that although there may be some kind of perverse detail with too much emphasis on the aesthetics of the problem, that we're obsessed with our weight because we really do genuinely have a weight problem. It is poised to pass up smoking as the leading cause of preventable death and illness. So it's not a media-generated problem. It's a real, real problem.

And we're more aware of and "obsessed" with our weight than any other society in history because we have a bigger weight problem than any society in history. And it is an American problem just slightly more than it is a world problem. Only that we're sort of leading the obesity epidemic. But the rest of the world is adopting our food and exercise habits and following very quickly behind. It's becoming a world-wide problem. There was a W.H.O. estimate that within a year or two that overeating would actually be a larger world-wide problem than starvation for the first time ever.

David: That's interesting. That's a total flip-flop from one end of the continuum to the other.

Deirdre: Yeah, but there's still a starvation in the world but this W.H.O. report was saying that even in relatively poor countries there is actually becoming a worse problem with eating too much in terms of calories. Even though you can certainly have overeating and under-nutrition at the same time when you're eating lots of empty carbohydrates and saturated fats and calories, you can still not be getting the proper vitamins and be undernourished in one sense while overfed in calories. And that's what is happening world-wide.

David: What were some of the myths out there around overweight and weight loss?

Deirdre: I think that just, "listen to your body, trust your instincts," is one. The misunderstanding that those instincts really are not accurate for the current environment. Another one is the advice that you should make moderate changes because they will supposedly be easier to stick with. Just order the small french fries instead of the large. Or switch to eating desserts every other night instead of every night.

And, first of all, those are usually not big enough changes to really solve the problem for most people. But secondly, they're not easier in the long run. Radical changes are easier biologically. Because when you really cut out the simple carbohydrates, in just a few days glucose levels, insulin levels, the hunger hormones like Ghrelin and Leptin adjust. And if you suddenly put a big fix of sugar back into your system, it actually becomes harder again. You would never tell a heroin addict, "Why don't you just shoot up every other day instead of every day?" That's infinitely harder than not at all.

David: So where do you think people have so much trouble with their diets? We've heard the term "yo-yo dieting" -- that people lose weight, they put it back on, they lose weight, they put it back on. They go from diet to diet. But what's the problem and what's the solution that you bring?

Deirdre: Well, I think it is partly that we are coded with instincts that are just wrong for our current environment. And so it's got to be a lifelong commitment to really work. But I think that some of this kind of, "just make small changes," or this idea of rewarding yourself for successful dieting with some food treat, that's the kind of food that's going to derail your diet. But that is partially responsible for the "yo-yo dieting" effect. And just the way that radical changes are easier biologically. And that's in a very short term, a matter of two or three days and some of the physical craving gets much better. But also for the habit, being really consistent is better for habit change even though that takes a longer period of time. There are recent brain scan technologies that allow us to really see what's happening when habits are at work.

There are studies where people are walking or driving a familiar route without even thinking about it, you see this deep brain structure called the basal ganglia firing then when somebody's not even thinking about where they're going. But when someone's taking a new route there's an area called the pre-frontal cortex that's much more associated with higher thinking decisions, problem solving, and that's very active when we're actively thinking about which way to go. And so for dieting, the first stage is to re-engage this pre-frontal cortex. You want for a while to really be thinking it through, to remember that you want to stick to your diet and pick out the food that is consistent with it rather than ordering that ice cream sundae.

But you don't want to stay in your pre-frontal cortex forever, having to think about every single food choice. So if you're very, very consistent and you just get into the habit of, "lunchtime is a salad, dinner is a small serving of grilled fish and vegetables," then after just a few weeks it becomes a habit again. The basal ganglia take over and you walk through a cafeteria line and just pick up the healthy food and ignore the other food while your pre-frontal cortex can be busy thinking about more interesting things. And so that's why consistency is so important. This kind of moderate, "Oh, it doesn't matter to have a day off from your diet," or do a food reward for your diet, it's not just those particular calories, it's this effect of really derailing you from the habit so then it has to become a more conscious decision again.

David: Well, you make that sound easy and make it sound like it's all about habit and decision making and voluntary control. But what about genetics? And what about deeper emotional issues such as seeking love and so on? So talk to each of those factors. Genetics and the deeper, possible emotional.

Deirdre: OK, well, genetics first. I mean, there've been a lot of books sort of claiming that obesity is genetic lately. There's a grain of truth to that but it's very, very misleading in the implications. There is just no such thing as a gene that operates separately from the environmental factors and from behaviors. So, for instance, the Pima Indians of Arizona are the heaviest people on average in the United States. 69 percent of the Pima are obese.

David: Hmm.

Deirdre: And the research on them inspired the "thrifty gene" hypothesis. That there are just some groups of individuals who store fat way more faster than others for a given diet. And the Pima Indian in the United States do not eat very well. They eat a lot of fast-food and don't get much exercise. But they're not eating very differently from a lot of other Americans who only end up a little overweight from that. So you could look at them and really think that they're just built to be this way. But that's not true. The tintypes of their grandparents are of thin people.

There are some Pimas who stayed in the Sierra Madras Mountains of Mexico and they're slim because they still do some hunting and some gathering. And they practice a very primitive form of agriculture that involves a lot of exercise. So they're eating a lot of fruits and vegetables and not much refined, processed food. So there's just no such thing as something genetic that operates on its own. So it is totally true that you can have genes that are going to make it likelier that you will put on weight faster if you eat refined foods. But there are no genes that make you eat refined foods over a healthier diet. So it's a loading for who just needs to be more careful about what they eat and about getting exercise. It's not destiny in the way it gets talked about sometimes.

David: But somewhere in there it seems to me that there is a genetic something. I mean, when I go out into the world and look at people, say at the beach or at the mall, there's such a range of body types. And it's really clear that not everybody could look like the models that we see in the magazines. You know, that it's not just a matter of overeating, I don't think. For example, when I was in Guatemala, and I see the people who are the descendants of the Myans, and you know, they have a certain look, which is kind of short and kind of squat and kind of wide. And aren't they sort of genetically programmed to look that way?

Deirdre: No. Some people are genetically programmed to be somewhat smaller or shorter although diet influences even that quite dramatically. Some people are programmed to have slightly heavier skeletons. But the differences are really pretty subtle. Some people are going to have more cheekbones relative to their lower jaw or something like that. But there is no group that seems to have genes that make you really overweight relative to the norm for most people over most kinds of diets. Again, you usually don't have to search back much further than grandparents or great-grandparents of these people to find some people who were much, much thinner than some ethnicity where you're saying everyone is heavy. Well everyone's heavy in their current eating habits.

David: How about Samoans? [laughter].

Deirdre: [laughter]

David: Samoans come to mind because I've seen some very large Samoans.

Deirdre: Yeah, some of the Pacific Islands are the only people who average heavier than Americans right now on the face of the earth. But they eat lots of fried food. They eat lots of canned food. Their ancestors were eating fish and the vegetation that grew naturally on the island. And now they're eating this incredibly unnatural food. In the United States, most minority groups, including blacks, are a little heavier on average than Caucasians. But, the hunter-gather tribes still practicing gathering back in Africa are just uniformly slim and muscularly toned.

The idea that somebody is just "genetically" built this way, you really can't say until you see what the genetic types look like eating and moving in a natural environment. And it's usually radically different.

So there's certainly, there is something to the genetics of who puts on weight easier. But it absolutely does not mean that any one is meant to be particularly fat. It means that some groups experienced famine even more in nature and the genetic loading was intended to just store tiny bits of fat through famine. And we've never faced anything like our current fast-food environment until now.

David: OK, now what about the underlying emotional issues, such as seeking love, seeking comfort, etcetera?

Deirdre: Yeah, I really think that, again, there's only a grain of truth and that that does a huge disservice to think that the main idea of why we're overeating is because of some psychological, neurotic need. The real main reason is because we have these instincts that are out of sync with our current food environment. And that certainly people who are depressed, people who are anxious, people who had less happy childhoods, these things are certainly going to make it more difficult to stick with a diet or any sort of a resolution. And anxiety and depression can interact with these instincts toward seeking sugary, fatty food, but they're not really the cause.

And, just like with a habit like smoking or something, it does make it that much more difficult but it does not make it impossible to change. And it is not even necessary to fix the psychological problem before you fix the habit. That plenty of people, even who are schizophrenic, but certainly who are depressed or anxious, have been able to lose weight or quit smoking before they really change those deeper-seated more underlying things. And although I'm certainly in favor of psychotherapy, just to understand yourself better or try to become a happier person. Those are valid goals in and of themselves. They shouldn't be sold as necessary before you can change a habit like your eating habits.

The therapies that are proved effective in research on weight loss are basically cognitive behavioral therapies that are with interventions that are focused very closely on the diet and exercise habits. And on hypnosis and similar hypnotic-like imagery. Again, that's focused very much on motivating people around diet and exercise. And that these two things can be very effective in getting someone to lose weight or get themselves moving and exercising more again and again without necessarily changing whatever other psychological issues someone may have.

David: Well, can you say a little bit more about the kinds of, what specifically you would do, say, as a cognitive therapist? To help someone with these issues?

Deirdre: Yeah, with cognitive behavioral therapy, so many people even if they sort of know what they're supposed to do, they're also simultaneously hanging onto a lot of rationalizations. Some being what was just talked about, the, "It's genetic. I'm just built this way." Some people will tell you that there's just no diet they would lose weight on. And you can really kind of reason this through. I mean, is there a diet that they would starve on? Well, yes, if they eat zero calories they are quite convinced they would starve. So there's something, halfway in between what they're eating now and zero calories, that they would lose weight on. And you can gradually get people around to that.

People will be telling you that, and telling themselves more importantly, that they keep chips and ice cream around in case company drops by. Although when you really pursue this, no, their company usually does not expect these things. They, in fact, demure and say that they're on a diet. They keep them around for their thin husband, their child. Well, no, these things are actually not so good for these people either. When you really re-think most of these things, there's a kind of more logical substitute thought that people can come up with that's a better way to think about this. And similarly, hypnotic-like imagery can be very, very motivating.

There's a kind of "catch-22" to dieting where, unlike other habits, where the second you change the behavior you can feel really good about not having this habit. If you procrastinate and you're suddenly doing something, if you've been messy and you clean up your house, it's neat. But when you switch your diet, you're not immediately slim or immediately become muscularly or immediately feeling the benefits of being able to do athletic things easier. There's a real time lag. So being able to visualize this vividly. And hypnosis or some other similar imagery techniques, you can really get to experience the pleasure and the way you will look. Or have some fun and being able to move that easily again or breathe that easily or run up a flight of stairs without thinking about it. That you can experience the benefits before you do the behavior. And that's very, very motivating.

So, it's the sight of hypnotic-like imagery and cognitive behavioral strategies that really seem to impact one's diet and exercise habits. And, in "Waistland" I talked both about some very simple versions of that that people can do on their own. But also about when to think about going to see a professional to get some help with that.

David: OK, I wonder if there's any research out there that compares the cognitive behavioral and hypnotic techniques that you've just referred to, to programs say, like Weight Watchers?

Deirdre: Yeah, there's a really good meta-analysis. God, I don't know the reference right off the top of my head, that was comparing lots and lots of psychologically-based weight loss interventions. It wasn't looking at what diet, per se, works best. It was looking at what way of motivating yourself to get on a diet works best. And it's Irv Kirsch that did that study. It was in the Journal of Counseling and Clinical Psychology, but I don't know the date. I have the reference in "Waistland" but I don't know the date and volume off the top of my head.

But basically, meta-analysis is something that looks at lots and lots of studies and controls for something that's a factor in one and not another. And it basically reached the conclusion that cognitive behavioral seems to be the single best validated method for psychologically motivating people around weight loss. And that virtually any of the others was not as good or didn't add anything on top of cognitive behavioral techniques except for hypnotic-like imagery, which was individually the second-most important and which seemed to have a separate effect for cognitive behavioral such that adding it on top did add something to it.

So, the Kirsch meta-analysis, which again, is he's taking 20 some odd studies that have been done up to this time and doing this re-analysis looking at various factors that are common across all of them.

David: Do you have a...?

Deirdre: That's the single best kind of research overview I know of so far.

David: Yeah, not to put you too much on the spot, but I'm wondering. Do you have any impressions of Weight Watchers?

Deirdre: I sort of have a mixed impression of Weight Watchers. The studies I've seen on it seem to indicate that it's very effective short-term, that it may not be very good for the relapse effect. I've certainly looked at their diet per se and it's reasonable sound. I prefer diets that put more emphasis on completely unrefined foods rather than just number of calories. I think number of calories has the most to do with how much weight you'll lose.

But I think that eating unrefined foods makes it easier not to be hungry while eating the same number of calories. And Weight Watchers does not put as much emphasis on that as I favor. But they're certainly not one of the goofy, silly diets that's not going to work if you follow it. You know, it's a relatively mainstream one. I guess I have a kind of middle of the road, it's better than nothing. There are some out there more natural foods, more emphasis on unrefined foods. The Paleo diet sort of thing seems to be sounder...

David: Paleo diet, what would that be?

Deirdre: There are actually a couple books by that title and just articles on that. But it's basically just refers to eating like people did during the Paleolithic period. The most extreme version of it, which I think is really more than one needs to do and makes it a little bit harder, is to really literally eat nothing that didn't exist during that time period. And I think it's more important just to match the general categories of lean protein, leafy vegetables, and much, much lower rate of carbohydrates when we eat these days. Really, South Beach, even Atkins and Dean Ornish's diet are kind of converging on each other in just, eat vegetables, eat fish, eat other lean protein.

David: Yeah, so I have that impression too. As a matter of fact, I have been on the South Beach diet for a while and I had the same mental resistance that you talk about. These myths that people hold in their head that prevents them from going ahead. And somehow, I had it in my mind that no diet was ever going to work for me. That I was pretty much biologically programmed because my emerging shape that has emerged over the years after...

The first half of life I was very thin and lean and then I began to develop more and more of a pot belly with all the weight kind of concentrating around my waist area. And, you know, that's what my father looked like at the same age. So I figured, well, it's just genetic programming. But, I went to see a cardiologist just to get a check-out and he mentioned the South Beach diet and so I thought, "Well, I'll give it a try." And I have to say I was very happily surprised. I've lost 24 pounds in a relatively short time and I've slimmed way down. I figure I'd like to lose maybe another seven pounds and that seems to be doable.

Deirdre: Yes, well, congratulations. That's very good. In "Waistland," I really devoted just a few pages on what to eat. First, because it's so simple and because I think that most mainstream diet books get it pretty close to right. And much, much more of the time on what we need to do to motivate ourselves to really get with and stick with that. Because I think it's more of the psychological advice that has some real fallacies right now.

And also I spent a lot of time on what society ought to do. Because I think that I encourage individuals to really make the change now against the tide in their own diet. But that does take a stronger commitment. And I think simultaneously we should be lobbying for everything from laws to just subtler financial incentives to shift our whole environment to a healthier one where it's just easier to be eating healthier foods and more automatic to get a certain amount of exercise in a way that will make it easier for all of us to be healthier in the future.

David: Well if you were national health czar, what public health policy changes would you push for?

Deirdre: Well, I would outright ban trans fats. I would ban advertising of junk food to children. But I would deal with most things but geared to adults in subtler ways. For instance, I think that our crop subsidies are just completely in the wrong direction. Currently the government is paying farmers to grow corn to be turned into corn syrup. We certainly don't need more corn syrup and we don't need it to be cheaper, and not subsidizing the growing broccoli or spinach or most of the healthy foods that we would like to see people eating more of and that we'd like to get cheaper so that there's an incentive to eat more of it.

So we could switch crop subsidies around right away and I mean, farmers are panicked at the idea of changing crop subsidies but I'm not suggesting eliminating corn crop subsidies, just subsidizing healthy ones and ceasing to subsidize unhealthy ones. Similarly we have a small business startup program that gives money to people who are entrepreneurs trying to start their own small business, and this is really meant to help small businesses get started, and yet it's now getting used mostly for people who are opening franchises of some big business, and the biggest chunk of these are franchise fast food chains.

So we're really subsidizing the startup of more branches of, first of all... big business I think just economic incentive that's not what was originally intended, but from a public health standpoint it's especially stupid to be subsidizing people to start another branch of a burger chain. And again, I wouldn't want to eliminate the small business startup subsidies, but we want to build in that... first of all that I that they be real genuine small businesses, but secondly that they be healthy, that you can get startup money to start your own health food restaurant, but you can't get startup money from the government to start your branch of a junk food chain.

So there are a lot of these things that I think that we could just change the incentive in a way that wouldn't hurt anybody, but which shifts them in the direction that was the public good. We can tax junk food, even for [inaudible] very similarly to what we do with cigarettes. I think that the anti-smoking campaign really a good model for what we need to be doing about food.

David: OK. You know this is such a current and lively issue -- maybe because I knew I was going to be interviewing you, I was more alert to this -- but just in today's paper as I was reading it over breakfast, there were four different things that leapt out that were all related to weight. Now there were two related to seminars that one was invited to attend, having to do with hormones.

One was being promoted by a chiropractor who was calling himself "The Belly Fat Doctor" and with Belly Fat Seminars, and the other is actually by a woman M.D., and I'll read you her ad. It says, "Everybody's talking about hormones. Hormones of menopause, weight control and romance. Free Seminar!" Then she talks about "the truth about restoring natural skinny hormones: how you can lose weight faster and easier," and the chiropractor talks about the "belly fat hormone". So what's your take on this?

Deirdre: That it's mainly just a variation on the fantasy that we're just going to have a magic bullet pill that we can swallow and not have to work at this stuff.

David: Oh no, you mean we're not? [laughs]

Deirdre: [laughs] Something may happen... Something may happen actually, I do not think it's impossible, but some day science may discover some way to engineer us to just not crave the bad foods or eat them and not put on the fat, but we're not there yet for sure and no one alive today wants to wait for that development before losing weight. And basically... with any of these diet pill sort of ideas, there's some rationale, but it's just that it doesn't work that way yet without trade-offs, and cortisol is a hormone that makes us store proportionally more fat in our belly and cortisol tends to go up when you're not exercising, it goes up with age in our society although not in hunter-gatherer societies with their habits interestingly.

There are some hunger hormones, leptin and ghrelin, and again there's some research on their levels influencing how much we want to eat. But there is no way to magically change these hormone levels other than that same basic advice about what you're eating and the exercise: if you get much more vigorous exercise and you eat lean meats and vegetables those hunger hormones will gradually subside and your cortisol levels will drop to some extent, and you will lose weight. But the idea that you can quickly change those things magically is... at least not here, not now, not coming in the next decade. People are picking up on the grain of truth from some research on that, and running with it as another miracle solution.

David: OK, we're probably at the point where we should begin to wrap things up. Let me see if I can more or less accurately summarize your perspective, then. If I understand you correctly then we are kind of driven by instincts that pre-program us to crave certain things like salts and fats and so on, and then, on the other hand, society has kind of given us way too much opportunity to consume way too high concentrations of these substances, also sugars, and you believe a lot of this can be controlled and compensated for by an exercise of intelligence and willpower.

Deirdre: Yes...

David: What have I left out here?

Deirdre: Well, I mean another way of saying that is that the radical changes are easier in the long run. That if you make a real commitment to just completely staying away from refined food, to getting exercise very regularly, to eating healthily and consistently, that both physiologically, that breaks some of the addictive quality, and habit-wise it becomes a habit that our brains just tells us to do more automatically. And it's easier, not harder, in the long run, to do the pretty radical commitment.

David: OK, well thank you so much Dr. Deirdre Barrett for being my guest today on Wise Council.

Deirdre: Thank you!

[musical interlude]

David: I hope you enjoyed this interview with my guest Dr. Deirdre Barrett. I had the opportunity recently to meet her in person and to hear her present at the annual conference of the International Association for the Study of Dreams. Having met her, I can testify that she is an excellent advertisement for the approach to eating that she espouses. If you're concerned about your weight, I would definitely recommend her book.

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by mentalhelp.net.

If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit mentalhelp.net where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in this series or simply page through the site which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the mentalhelp.net home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like Shrink Rap Radio, my other interview podcast series which is available online at www.shrinkrapradio.com, and wrap is spelt R-A-P. Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.