The science behind the new approach to Weight Watchers
Weight Watchers chief scientist, Karen Miller-Kovach, explains how breakthrough scientific discoveries have been applied to the new approach to Weight Watchers to help make weight loss easier and more successful
So, we’re dying to know… what can you tell us about the upcoming changes to the Plan?
We’ve made some big — but simple — changes based on new, breakthrough research. Among other things, this research has uncovered that food consumption can be physiologically driven by simply seeing, thinking or smelling highly palatable foods — that is, foods that are most often high in calories, sugar and/or fat. That’s called “hedonic hunger,” and it helps us look at weight loss in a whole new way.
It does? Give us an example.
Well, for one, the discovery of the hedonic hunger system helps us to understand and explain a lot more about human eating behavior. Here’s an example: If someone’s just eaten a big meal but they love ice cream, have a desire for it and subsequently ice cream becomes available, they’ll actually have a physical reaction as if they’ve not eaten for a long time. They may start salivating, the stomach might rumble. Those are the signs that were previously denied or heard with skepticism by others because we had been taught to think a person would only feel that way if they had been deprived of food for a period of time and had a physical need for calories. But the reality is that when your brain sees that ice cream, it sends real, hard-to-ignore signal to your body to eat it.
So, hedonic hunger is food consumption that is not driven by the need to eat after going without food for a long period of time, but rather to eat the food as a means to provide pleasure (and who doesn’t want pleasure?!?). And it’s most often linked with a desire for highly palatable foods, such as those rich in sugars or fat — the ones that “call your name.” It’s not the broccoli, the carrots, the brown rice…
Not fair! So, what did we think of as “hunger” before?
Since the 1950s, we thought that hunger was limited to a biological pathway defined by guy called Elliot Stellar. He called it the homeostatic model of eating. A part of the brain — the hypothalamus — would send and receive messages based on blood sugar levels (which would rise when eating and fall afterwards), and that would tell the body when to start and stop eating. For the next 50 or 60 years, this model has been the one and only lens that weight management has been viewed under. But there was a lot that couldn’t be explained through this model. One important example is, why didn’t this homeostatic model that’s designed to help humans maintain bodyweight stop them from eating too much? Why has there been an epidemic of obesity if this was the only regulatory system for eating and body weight regulation?
But isn’t the desire for dessert after a big meal more to do with emotional eating?
Science is taking us away from the idea that the desire to eat for pleasure is simply a psychological phenomenon, what we often tend to dismissively call “emotional eating.” But emotional eating doesn’t explain the recent rise in obesity. People were stressed 100 years ago! Traditionally, weight loss experts have spent a fair amount of time helping people to find ways to curb our drive to eat for pleasure through managing our thoughts and feelings. Put very simply, the old thinking was almost, “If you’re emotionally aligned, you’ll only have one cookie.” But now we know that there are physiological mechanisms in place in this desire to eat for pleasure that have a strong biological drive that we’re only just beginning to understand.
So… rather than it all being in our minds, it’s actually in our brains?
Right! Through functional MRI scans, we can actually look inside the human brain — particularly the pleasure centres — to see what happens when a person’s appetite is triggered by the sight, sound, smell or even the thought of highly palatable, foods — the ones that are around us much of the time (and were not so readily available 100 years ago). The chain of events this reaction kicks off triggers an urge to eat, and brain scans show us that this is similar to the reaction when you’re driven to eat because you haven’t eaten for 12 hours and really need the calories.
Why do we have this hedonic hunger reaction?
This is a new scientific area of research that we’re just beginning to understand. Some researchers speculate that hedonic hunger is part of a backup system that developed from our early ancestors to protect the human race from extinction during periods when everyday energy needs could not be met with the food that was available at the time. They had to eat more than enough to survive — foe example the harvest is in the autumn and winter will be lean. Foods higher in fat and calories provided the most energy, and it makes sense that evolution would drive us to have a preference for them. The problem now is we don’t have a scarcity of food in our society and go for long periods of time without eating, but the human body hasn’t been able to switch off that hedonic reaction.
If we can stop “regular” hunger by eating, how do we stop hedonic hunger?
Scientists are still learning more about dealing with hedonic hunger as this is still a very new area, but it has helped us to narrow our lens and take a much closer and harder look at the importance of environmental control. If hedonic hunger is triggered not by emotion but the exposure to an abundance of palatable foods in our environment, it makes sense that efforts to control it are better spent in managing our environment than our emotions and feelings There’s a focus to keep the pleasure centre in the brain unstimulated as much as possible, because that stimulation, particularly when it’s over-stimulated, makes it very difficult (if not impossible) not to overeat.
So what is Weight Watchers actually doing with this new knowledge?
We’ll focus less on psychology, and more on a 360-degree approach to give people what they need to make their environments work for them. With this new knowledge, and an increased understanding of how the brain and appetite regulation works, we’re able look for the best strategies that are really helpful for people in the environment in which they live and how our brains respond to this these types of food.
We’re incorporating new ideas and strategies that are not focused on having higher levels of self-control, but rather, simple strategies and tactics you can do to make it a lot easier to make a healthy choice. We’re not trying to make you suppress this physiological drive to eat, because once that’s set in motion, it’s really hard to stop it! But, say, if the cakes aren’t on the counter, or you ask your waiter not to bring the bread basket, you have put yourself into an environment in which the desired choice is the easiest choice and that, in turn, can make it easier to be successful.