top of page

Your physical body systems and weight cycling

One of the problems with a system is that it cannot be broken down into its individual parts in order to understand how it works.  Each part of the system is connected to other parts and changing one changes the results. 

Practically put, you can’t look at individual parts of your eating and try to solve the problem. 


Why?  Because you don’t just eat for hunger.  That’s your energy level measurement system telling you it needs more food for energy.  Sometimes, even when you’re not hungry, you’ll feel a sudden urge to consume a comfort food.  That’s your emotional feeling system telling you to eat to calm or settle something burning inside you. 

You can’t simply say I’ll look at my eating and exercise as a calories in, calories out problem. 

When you diet slowly, say looking to lose maybe a kilo a week, you can slowly adjust what we call the set point of the system.  You don’t push the system off balance and force it to ‘fight back’ to get that weight back. 

If you decide to go hard and fast, you’ll feel, after a while hunger urges, surge in your body.  The physical systems of the body that require energy to function will raise the level of the alarm.  Then your body system will start to push back, it will slow your metabolism, you’ll feel weak as energy is saved for key survival systems.


The body takes in energy by converting food to energy and uses the energy to move, think and engage with others.


When the energy is lowers to a certain level, a signal provides feedback to the food acquisition and consumption system that more energy is needed. This is normally experienced as hunger.

If it’s just the physical system that is involved then we have a balance, food is only consumed when the feedback signal, hunger, indicates energy levels need replenishing. The weight of the person with this balanced food system running is essentially constant, within a couple of hundred grams a day. Perfect in some people’s mind.


However, being human, we have more than one system running. As a child we learned a whole lot of rules around eating such as, no eating between meals, finish everything on your plate, keep out of the kitchen, don’t speak at the table and so on. In childhood, we build these rules into what are called mental models that encapsulate our world. Everyone has more than a hundred or more mental models for different situations, not just eating.


Our brain uses these experiences that it stores in the models as a quick decision-making technique. For example, I see a dark street with a single light halfway along and I’m in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. I decide not to walk down there alone because my mental model says ‘danger’, without me having to logically think through the situation.


Sometimes as children we can be hungry, almost starving with growth spurts and our parents may not have noticed. If we were not allowed to have food between meals, we may have had to sneak it. If we had no money, maybe we extracted some from our money box and bought treats at the shop. These treats bought enormous relief or even joy, with the downside of having to hide them.


The shame of being caught was outweighed by the thrill of the experience and the comfort of the forbidden treat. This mental model can carry forward into adulthood when we’re feeling similar feelings to those childhood experiences of powerless, unloved, controlled or belittled and we find love in a chocolate or slice of cake eaten out of sight and knowledge of others. So how does the emotional system interact with the eating system?


An author, Tarek Abdel-Hamid, a Professor at Naval Postgraduate School has a fascinating book, 'Thinking in circles about obesity' where he illustrates the physical systems in the body and its very comprehensive.  


But I want to take a look at how the emotional body also causes the consumption of extra calories that we often don’t think about or in fact we are in denial about consuming.

Your emotional body systems and weight cycling


Stress can build slowly over the week or may peak more than once.


Each peak triggers the eating need, in order to get the level of the stress down.


A woman generally needs 2000 calories per day. If she eats for comfort a 360-gram Family sized block of Cadburys chocolate she’s consumed almost 1970 calories.


And if she throws away the wrapper before she gets home then the eating is in the hidden category. Something she’d be shamed by if people saw her. But at least she can get through another day.


Say you’re dieting and reducing calories. And on the first three days of the week, you stick to the diet, but slowly as the weekend approaches your stress level needs treating and a block of chocolate is consumed.

The following diagram shows the connection between the emotional system and the physical system and the number of calories consumed to reduce the stress is probably more than a day’s food of a dieter. This is not used as energy but stored as fat in the body.


Dieting is not the answer for losing weight when the emotional system can override the physical system.


VISIT weightingforhappiness to find out more 

bottom of page