In my last blog post about willpower, I described habits being neural impulse channels in our brain stimulated by a cue following a path leading to the same outcome each and every time – without exerting much effort. Researchers call the formation of these impulse channels habit-loop cycles. Much of the original obesity research of the 19th century was conducted by psychiatrists and psychologists recognizing that people had habitual eating patterns. Because of this, gluttony became the perceived influence of obesity. This underlying philosophy still permeates the obesity research, treatment and low-carb dietary world today. Yet, over the last 15 years, I’ve found that the habit-loop cycle is tied to powerful hormone responses. These responses to very subtle and often unknown triggers or cues powerfully drive weight gain, obesity and struggles with willpower. How does the habit-loop cycle effect you? Before we can change these habit-loop cycles, we have to understand what they are, and how they were created.
It’s All About That Basal Ganglia
Meghan Trainor tells us that “It’s all about that bass . . .” However, it’s really all about that basal ganglia. Deep inside our brains, close to the brain stem, at the location where the brain meets the spinal cord, is a little “nub” of neurological tissue called the basal ganglia. This little nubbin of tissues was identified by the really smart scientists at MIT in the 1990’s as the location where habits are formed and executed. The brain is – to take a quote from my favorite ogre, Shrek – “like an onion – it has layers!”
The Brain Is Like an Onion
If you picture the outer layers of the brain tissue, those closest to the hair and scalp, you can create a mental image of where our most complex thoughts occur. When you think up a new invention, create a new way to cook with bacon, laugh at a friend’s joke, or link two complex thoughts about how habits form, you are using these outer layers of the brain.
However, our interest today is deeper . . . much, much deeper. Deep within the center of the brain at the basal ganglia is the location where our automatic behavior originates. Swallowing, breathing and the startle responses are housed in this little nubbin of brain tissue. It is this area of the brain that learns to recall and record patterns of neurological thought and stimulating action. This part of the brain has the ability, like the water drops on the mound we discussed last week, to record neural pathways and tracks leading to reduced mental effort and habit. The basal ganglia even has the ability to store habits while the rest of the brain is asleep. It is in this location, the basal ganglia, where the habit-loop cycle occurs.
Habits Created by Chunking
The habit-loop cycle is the process where the brain converts a sequence of actions into an automatic routine. The really smart guys at MIT call this “chunking,” and it is the root of habit formation. There are hundreds of behavioral chunking activities that you and I rely upon every day. Some of these are as simple as the process you use to squirt toothpaste on your toothbrush before brushing your teeth. Others are more complex like getting dressed or making a lunch box for the kids.
The Habit-Loop Cycle in Your Car
A habit-loop cycle is performed by this little nubbin of tissue by millions of people every morning. Take, for example, backing your car out of the garage. When you first learned to do this, it required huge amounts of concentration – and for very good reason. You’re steering 3000-5000 lbs of steel between a 16 foot garage-door opening into oncoming traffic.
Safely backing your car requires you to open the garage door, unlock the car, adjust the seat, insert the key into the ignition, turn it clockwise, move the rear-view mirror and the side mirrors to visualize any obstacles, put your foot on the brake, put the car into reverse, gently remove your foot from the brake, mentally estimate the distance between the garage and the street while keeping the wheels straight and looking over your shoulder, applying a slight pressure between the gas pedal and the brake, and in some cases, slapping your teenagers hand while they fiddle with the radio dial.
But think about it . . . did you actually put any thought into these actions this morning? You and I probably did this once or twice today without any additional thought. It happened because the basal ganglia took over and created a habit-loop out of it. This routine, repeated hundreds of times, became a habit, requiring very little mental effort.
Your Basal Ganglia Makes You Fat
The habit-loop cycle occurs hundreds and maybe thousands of times throughout our day. It is the cycle that drives hundreds of our activities. In fact, it is this same cycle, in combination with 30 different hormones, that drives our weight gain or weight loss. Yes, I said it, your basal ganglia can make you fat.
Habits Make for a Smaller Brain
Your brain will try to turn any regular routine into a habit, because habits allow our minds to slow down and conserve effort, energy and fuel. The efficient brain allows us to stop thinking about basic behaviors like walking, breathing and eating. This effort-saving effect of the brain is a major advantage, otherwise our brains would be huge, requiring heads the size of watermelons, or even the size of a water tower, causing their own weather systems. Your wife will thank you for an efficient brain that is smaller and requires less room. Can you imaging giving birth to a watermelon or a small Chevy? (Did you notice the size of Shrek and the Donkey’s head? Just say’n . . . )
Habits Are The Root of Behavior
What all this leads to is this – habits, as much as memory and reason, are the root of our behavior. We often don’t remember the experiences that create our habits. However, once they are created, they influence our action without our own realization. Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit is a great resource for further information on how habits drive our behavior.
The Habit-Loop of Obesity
So, how does all this affect obesity and weight gain? Let’s, first, look at the habit-loop cycle. Researcher, Larry Squire, documented the habit-loop through three decades of research. He and others published numerous articles showing that habits have a cue or trigger that stimulates a routine. The routine leads to an outcome or reward. The reward usually satisfies a craving. Cue-> Routine -> Reward. What we learn through our studies in obesity is that the reward often stimulates a hormonal response of 1-30 different hormones in brain and body leading to repeat cues or triggers. The cravings are hormonally driven. I call it the Habit-Loop of Obesity.
The Craving is the Key
Human psychology and emotion is the key behind habit creation. First, there must be a trigger or cue. Second, the trigger is attached to a previously experienced emotion or craving tied to the cue. The key to habit formation is the craving. The craving is what stimulates the physical routine to occur. It is an emotion or craving that drives the brain to create the habit. Third, there must be a clearly defined outcome or reward that satisfy the emotion or the craving. The emotion or craving doesn’t have to be associated with hormones, however, in the relm of obesity, it is usually tied together.
I am all about making things easier. Your brain does it. We all do it. And, I’m all about trying to help you lose fat and get healthy more easily. Let food be your medicine, let medicine be your food. That’s my mantra and that is as easy and natural as it gets. But, in our day and age, we don’t always have access to growing and raising our own food. That’s why my second mantra is – better living through chemistry. So, I created the KetoKart. Over the last 15 years of medical practice, I’ve found products and supplements that aid in letting food be your medicine, changing triggers, modifying hormones, and help to satisfy cravings in a healthy way to make your decisions easier. Go to the KetoKart, see which package works for you and order it. You’ll thank me.
How do we change our obesity habits? Stay tuned for the third part in this series: Fixing the Habit-Loop of Obesity.
So, I want to know . . . which package did you choose?