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Dr. Deirdre Barrett on Healthier Living

Dr. Deirdre Barrett on Healthier Living

Deirdre Barrett, Ph.D., is a psychologist at the Harvard University School of Behavioral Medicine. Her latest book, Waistland: A (R)evolutionary View of Our Weight and Fitness Crisis, is a culmination of years of research on how human beings have evolved not for the modern setting, but for a hunter-gatherer society and how our heath is suffering because of it. Barrett explains how ignoring our evolutionary traits have led us to the unhealthy lifestyles we lead today.

Why have we evolved to become more sedentary?

In our natural environment, our instincts were toward rest when you don’t need to be moving. We automatically got plenty of exercise for food, shelter and other things we needed. Now we have all this free time when we don’t need to be moving. We let those rest instincts take over. We can eat all the processed versions of the food we crave, and we have all the physical leisure we want in our environment. We don’t have to move very far anymore, since machines do most things automatically. In order to combat this, we need to use our intellects instead of our instincts when it comes to food and exercise.

How do our eating habits mimic a drug addict’s need for a hit?

In terms of addictions, we are slow to see it. The substances we are addicted to are foods that we don’t need—they act like heroin. Those substances are closely tied to the genetics of what the body needs. Fat, sugar and salt are natural things we are supposed to get, and the increased concentrations in which we eat them function the same way heroin does. The same brain areas that have to do with extreme reward systems are the same ones that these concentrated, refined foods trigger. That’s the physical addiction that occurs once you’re using these concentrated substances, and you’re likely to experience withdrawal cravings when these foods are removed from your diet.

Where did you come up with the idea to study our evolutionary reason for being unhealthy?

It came from hearing so much standard advice that is wrong. There were plenty of diet books that talk about the specifics of food. What was missing was the psychology behind it.

Is it better to make smaller changes or larger, sweeping changes during the first 30 days of living healthier?

Drastic changes are easier physiologically. Things like priming our body with more sugar are really stimulating the hunger signals that will go away if you are eating healthy consistently. Habit research suggests if you are consistent about a new habit, it drops down to the lower parts in the brain where things are reflexive. It gets to the point where you don’t even think about. If you are irregular at all, it’s because you’re doing the more modest changes. You keep the struggle constantly in the higher brain centers, and it stays as an ongoing struggle in your mind. Once you make a change, it’s more like three or four weeks before really consistent habits shift from the decision-making center to habit areas.

What are the long-term implications of living in opposition to our evolutionary traits for individuals and the human race?

I’m optimistic in the long run. I hope there would be a natural tipping point like there was with the tobacco epidemic. People knew about the risks of smoking for a long time but were still in denial. Finally, after we reached an epidemic, we got more serious about smoking cessation. All the same things would happen eventually for the obesity problems and what’s happening with diet and exercise. I would like to see it happen sooner than whatever is that natural panic point. The sooner we make the social changes, the better.

But in the short term, I’m a bit pessimistic. Any individual should be making his or her own individual changes in our present environment and not waiting for society. That’s the long-term fix. People have to train themselves to pass on the fast food restaurants.

How can this information be useful to someone who is going through the first 30 days of living healthier?

Making radical, clear and consistent change is best, both from a biological and psychological standpoint. In three to four days of eating fewer refined carbohydrates and saturated fats, they stop becoming physical cravings. In the first week, that fighting through the [biological] craving is the biggest issue. Brain scans suggest it takes three to four weeks for some habits to form, three to six for others depending on the habit. It’s close to 30 days when the psychological shift consolidates. The early part of the 30 days is when you’re struggling with physical cravings and letting your body adjust while experiencing addictive withdrawal. Most of the rest of the 30-day period is focused on sticking to the habit and psychologically exerting some willpower.

The second half of your book talks about how to change this behavior. According to your research, what are the most important things to do in the first 30 days of living healthier?

The first week is when it’s important to physically keep away from signals and stimuli. Keep trigger foods out of the house even if there is someone else around who might want them. Walk around the Cinnabon shop and avoid that temptation. If you know you won’t resist in a restaurant, you might not go to any of your usual places where there is temptation to order the wrong things. If you eat all your meals outside home, go to health food restaurants.

For exercise, you may want to do everything to force yourself to move. This may be where it’s most important to enlist a friend to start walking with you, or splurge on a personal trainer—not only does he or she give you exercise training, but if you’re paying someone a hefty fee for an hour, you won’t miss a workout.

Stop eating processed foods, especially those that result in less-simple carbohydrates. Processed foods are heavy in white flower and saturated fat. Concentrate on eating fresh fruits and veggies, fibrous vegetables, fish or some other fairly concentrated source of protein. People shouldn’t stay away from whole grains, but grains shouldn’t be a huge proportion of your diet—it’s not natural for hunter-gatherers. All cultivated grains have fatter and fatter seeds with more carbs and sugar.

How will people feel about making these changes in the first 30 days? How hard is it to do?

The basic underlying problem and the feelings it generates are a combination of hunger. We all have a variety of psychological reactions to that. Your individual psychology will determine whether that physical feeling of hunger makes you more anxious or depressed or grouchy. There’s a lot of individual variation as to how stress to the body makes you respond emotionally.


What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?

Whether changes are being sought or the changes are chosen, it’s completely different than having to adapt to some change in the environment you don’t like. I don’t have a word or wisdom in my life about change.

The best thing about change is….

…you get a new self and new experiences.

What is the best change you have ever made?

Probably around 30 when I finally let go of quoting W.C. Fields—“Every time I feel the urge to exercise, I lie down until it goes away,”—and I got more physically fit.

For more information on Dr. Deirdre Barrett, visit www.huffingtonpost.com/deirdre-barrett.

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