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Reading Between the Headlines: Do Hormones Really Make You Fat?

A study that was published in the Oct. 27, 2011, edition of The New England Journal of Medicine (Sumithran, et al., 2011) found that one year after a completing a 10-week low-calorie weight loss program, dieters secreted more hunger-inducing hormones than they did before starting their diet.

The authors of the 2011 study concluded that these hormonal shifts are largely responsible for the all-too-common weight regain that occurs for many people after a diet. Therefore, they suggested, long-term maintenance of weight loss may require medication to counteract such hormonal changes.

As a clinical psychologist who specializes in obesity treatment, I am fascinated by research that seeks to better understand why people have such difficulty losing weight and keeping it off.

Scientific evidence indicates that genetics, hormones, and brain circuitry all play a role in determining our hunger levels, when we feel full, and ultimately how much we weigh. I use this data to explain to my patients that the difficulty of their struggle to lose weight is real, and is based in neurochemicals and DNA.

I fear, however, that these findings are often misconstrued by two important groups: overweight individuals who are trying to lose weight and the scientists themselves.

To begin, I’ll put myself in the shoes of an obese person who is failing in her weight loss efforts. Reading a headline about the influence of hormones on weight, I might draw the conclusion, “Well, there’s no point in continuing this weight loss program if my hormones are just going to lead me to gain the weight back. I guess I’m doomed to be overweight forever.”

This is a dangerous line of thinking because it creates feelings of powerlessness, apathy, discouragement, and maybe even anger.

Following through with plans to make healthier food choices and do more exercise is challenging enough without these self-defeating emotions getting in the way. Further, this interpretation discounts the possibility that individuals are indeed capable of learning techniques and strategies to counter these hormonal effects.

For instance, limiting exposure to tempting foods, pre-planning meals, and committing to a regular program of exercise have all been shown to assist people in losing weight and keeping it off for good. We are not solely a product of our bodily chemistry, and we always retain the power to choose what goes into our mouths and how much we move our bodies.

Secondly, I would hope that scientists who conduct this research realize and acknowledge that people make choices around food and exercise based on a wide variety of factors – and that physical hunger (which is regulated by the hormones they study) is likely not the most influential.

Many of my overweight patients tell me that they eat when they are hungry, but they also eat when they are anxious, angry, depressed, bored, or even happy. Further, they often continue eating (even when they feel uncomfortably full) because the food tastes so good or because they are seeking distraction from emotional pain.

Thus, it is unlikely that any medication – no matter how well it tames a person’s hunger – will be the cure-all for our obesity epidemic.

Advances in medicine will undoubtedly play a role in the future of obesity treatment, but a combination of pharmacological/surgical and behavioral/psychological approaches will always be necessary to address the complex reasons that people overeat.

About Katie Rickel, PhD

Dr. Katie Rickel graduated summa cum laude from Duke University with a Bachelor of Science in psychology and earned a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Florida. She completed an APA-accredited clinical internship in health psychology at Duke University Medical Center, with advanced training in behavioral and bariatric obesity treatment as well as the psychological management of chronic pain and illness. Dr. Rickel also has expertise in treating anxiety disorders, including obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias. Her research has been presented at various professional conferences and published in scientific journals. Dr. Rickel has also appeared on “The Dr. Oz Show” and has been quoted in several popular media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Health magazine, Yahoo! Health, Women’s Health magazine, Weight Watchers magazine, and abcnews.com.

View all posts by Katie Rickel, PhD