Cris LaBossiere

Cris LaBossiere
Strength training and mountain biking. My two favorites

Sunday, September 28, 2014

How personal bias prevents fat loss

Actually the only thing that prevents fat loss is not having a caloric deficit.

To lose fat we need to consume fewer calories than expended, pretty simple.

The complicated part though, is our psychological behavior and physiology, which aren't as separate as we may think.  In fact, in order to think, neurons have to fire and different parts of our brain have to communicate with each other.  Our thoughts and feelings, and the intricacies of how our brain works, are all part of our physiology.

Overeating can stimulate more overeating.  Hormones that regulate appetite and satiety are altered by eating very large meals (800+ calories), and by consuming foods rich in sodium, fat, and sugar.

Knowing this, it becomes pretty important to avoid starting to overeat in the first place.

So if we know this, why do we overeat anyway?  Surely if we know we're going to alter our appetite regulation by overeating, we're smart enough to figure out we should avoid overeating.  Sort of. We are smart enough to figure this out, but we're also smart enough to outsmart ourselves by avoiding recognizing reality.. this allows us to keep overeating, and we overeat because of the perceived rewards it brings us.

There's a lot more happening on the psychological front though, and its this essential component of how we perceive reward, risk, harm, and how we justify our actions, that influences our decisions, often without us realizing how our decisions are shaped.

Confirmation bias, self serving bias, overconfidence bias, and belief polarization are key psychological traits that play a major role in keeping us in the habits of overeating and not exercising.

These are sometimes referred to as cognitive illusions. The complexities of our brain circuitry allow us to have biases towards jumping to conclusions that aren't real, but we end up behaving as though our biases are true.

An athlete might develop a practice of not changing their socks when they're in the semifinals, because this will bring them good luck and help them win.  We may call this a superstition, which it is, but this cognitive illusion is created by faulty reasoning, biases that impair normal judgment. There's definitely a duality here as these biases can co-exist alongside rational reasoning.  The same athlete may have the presence of mind to dismiss something like the existence of the tooth fairy.

Being reasonably rational at other times allows us to think, "I'm pretty rational", which obfuscates our irrational biases.  This means that while being irrational, we won't recognize we're being irrational for two reasons; we don't think our current thought is irrational, and further, we're generally not an irrational person so whatever we're thinking, is likely to be rational.

Of course, this is completely irrational.

Researchers have found that in essence, the lower part of our brain that has strong emotional reasoning, and the upper part of our brain that can produce fact comparison reasoning, have some conflicts.  The lower brain can win more often than we realize, because the lower brain can impair the activity of the upper brain.  The upper brain can win too, if we're self aware and use critical thinking. So don't despair, this isn't really as dire at it may be perceived.  This is all good news as understanding this is where the start of our turnaround is.

Be aware, a sign that you're experiencing any of these cognitive illusion traits, is denying that you may be experiencing them.. it's an interesting twist in how our thoughts and feelings become befuddled, and cloud our judgment.

Being self aware and using critical thinking can overcome these biases.

In confirmation bias, there is a tendency to look for or filter for evidence that supports our current belief, idea, or also in this case, a habit we may have.

When I was a smoker I would claim that since there are people over age 60 that smoke, that smoking can't be that bad for you, since it hasn't seemed to have harmed them.

I confirmed my bias belief that smoking wasn't really that bad for your health, which allowed me to stay in denial and justify smoking, which allowed me to keep getting my nicotine reward.

The thing is I had to invent a completely contrived and distorted view that circumvented reality in order to do so.  Confirmation bias, and each of these traits I'll review here, conspire to basically allow us to stick our heads in the sand or stick our fingers in our ears and sing, "la, la, la, la", whenever we see or hear of reasonable evidence against any of our sadly mistaken personal beliefs and biases.

Interestingly many smokers will know that smoking is bad for them, but also perceive the harms of smoking are more likely to occur in other smokers.

With overeating we may choose to believe we don't overeat, and point towards our zero calorie or low fat foods to confirm our bias.

Or we may choose to believe we have a slow metabolism which causes us to gain fat; it's not overeating, it's unusually slow metabolism.  We create these illusions, then act like they're real.

Studies show that most people who struggle with weight gain overestimate their physical activity by nearly 40%, and underestimate their caloric intake by about the same amount (30-45%).

Research also shows that the majority of the population feels that overeating affects other people, but not them.  However with 60% to 70% of the population being overweight, this observation can only be a biased one. 

When people believe they don't overeat or that overeating isn't that big of a deal for them, critical thinking is avoided and the person is unlikely to take action with eating less.

In self serving bias a person may choose to believe that their self determination allowed them to eat less and exercise more to lose weight (reality), but if they gain weight back it's because of chemicals in food, the environment, their metabolism mysteriously slowed down, etc (cognitive illusion).

In self serving bias we tend to attribute our successes to our own brilliance and our failures to somebody or something else.

In overconfidence bias we can get pretty full of ourselves due to successes we've had or perceived we've had, then over-confidently predict future success with no or little chance of failure.

A person can lose weight successfully, believe that they are immune to returning to chronic overeating because they've done so well with their new healthy living, but then be surprised that they did in fact return to overeating and gained weight again.  The sense of infallibility can prevent a person from otherwise being mindful of their choices, and return to overeating without regard for the possibility of reversing their success.

In business, a person might make a series of deals or stock investments that were tremendously successful, and develop overconfidence.  They might miss the fact that success had to do more with a general upwards market trend than their own abilities, and may dismiss the fact that the market is, or could start a downwards trend, resulting in less success.  This cognitive illusion has been shown to be the ruin of many fortunes.

Belief polarization is where we tend to feel affronted by challenges to our current beliefs, ignore new evidence that shows we might be wrong, and become evangelistic in our support of current beliefs.

A great example of this is the current trend of denying that calories in calories out is the only thing that causes fat gain and fat loss.  There are bizarre claims floating about in the media and this wonderful internet that some people can overeat by 1000 calories a day and never gain fat, while others can be on a caloric deficit and "exercise like crazy", and never lose fat.

This is just as fictitious and unreasonable as claiming the sun orbits the earth, but facts and evidence can have little influence because like these other traits I've mentioned here, belief polarization is a cognitive illusion. 

You could even say, delusion.

The truth does actually matter because only harm can come out of acting out on these false beliefs. When we're in the thick of it though, we tend to be unmoved by evidence and reason, no matter how obvious.

In belief polarization a person will feel compelled to ignore reasonable evidence, usually demonizing the reasonable evidence (this makes it easier to deny it).

The only way out is critical thinking and developing the ability to notice when we're falling into any of these natural human cognitive illusions.

Two main troubling values of these cognitive illusions are that, one; stepping back and allowing good judgment and critical thinking to prevail means accepting we're wrong, and we tend to not like that.. and two; it means letting go of a rewarding association we have with our current belief.

It makes us feel like we will be less rewarded, and we don't like that either.

In reality though we are more rewarded by accepting reality.  We're liberated from the illusion, and this allows us to take real actions that cause real outcomes.  We can also be liberated from the emotional and physical harm that an unhealthy lifestyle causes us.

Only our cognitive illusions allow us to act like we're not harmed by chronic overeating and lack of physical activity, or that we're not overeating when in fact we are.

I've written before about how overeating and high concentrations of fat, salt, and sugar have been shown in research to stimulate reward centres in our brains through manipulating dopamine and other neurotransmitters, and have written about other emotional influences on overeating.

Emotional states drive unhealthy decisions

Why we fall for diet and exercise myths

Once the reward seeking pathways in the brain are activated it becomes very difficult to dismiss our sense of reward with food.  If we're stressed we often turn to food because our brains have associated reward with food, and reward is better than feeling stressed, so we eat to temporarily feel good.  This does nothing to address the cause of stress though.. and down the spiral we go.

Our overeating behaviours and beliefs are driven by many complex variables, but most are fairly well understood. There is good news here.. it's not a bad thing to learn about all these things that influence our poor decisions.  Knowing helps us understand what's happening. There are things we can all do to change our biases and misconceptions so that we're no longer harmed by them.

Discover your own biases, their origins, and the things you think and do to maintain them, the things you choose to pay attention to, the people you choose to listen to because they tell you what you want to hear (like the guru with the latest fat loss claim), and those you dismiss because of the uncomfortable truth they represent.. (Um.. Maybe like me ;-)

Critical thinking and emotional self awareness can help liberate people from chronic unhealthy habits that the majority of the population suffers from.  Eating less and exercising more are what we're trying to get at, but we can be our own worst enemies in getting there with our thoughts and feelings.

Wiki link
Belief polarization 

Some Youtube links on these biases:


Underestimating food portions Journal Appetite

People who thought they couldn't lose weight due to their metabolism actually had normal metabolism, but significantly under reported how much food they ate.  They gained weight and couldn't lose it because they ate too much, but their biases had them perceiving they exercised 50% more than they really did, and ate 53% less food than they convinced themselves they did.

New England Journal of Medicine study