Monday, 20 February 2017

Post 46: Ending Your Diet Forever (aka a treatise on "happiness")

Hi guys,

In this week’s post I want to talk about your story once it progresses beyond the rainbow. How do you reconcile your new life with your old, and what happens once you attain the body of an Adonis? This post is a treatise on redefining happiness, and why we can never be truly satisfied. Sounds quite depressing don’t you think? Let’s read on...

When does it end?! That might be the question on the lips of a desperate dieter, as they dutifully drain their latest meal replacement shake. Us here at Cowlean HQ know better, so we aren’t familiar with this brand of misery, but the question is still valid (albeit with a less depressing tone).

You might have set yourself a target weight or bodyfat %; you might be targeting a certain dress size or waist measurement; you might be waiting for the day when you look in the mirror and simply say “that’s it!”. The problem with reaching our goals, is that we always want to go deeper. If we’ve reached a certain waypoint, why not forge ahead?

I implore you to read last week’s post on happy hormones before continuing, because the knowledge presented there is a prerequisite for today’s discussion.

You’re likely to take one of two paths once you’ve reached your target. The first is introduced above: you push on. The second is a partial return to old ways. By this point, you’ve internalised certain reactions. When you see junk food, your cortisol doesn’t tell you to “do something” (in this case eat it), instead you get a superior feeling from a serotonin stimulation. Vis-a-vis, your instinctual responses are enacting what used to be a logical decision which required great effort.

But it is still likely that you’ll retreat 10-20% back to your old ways. You’ll feel like you’re indulging but you’re actually living a life 80+ % healthier than you were. For example, I went from 265 lbs to 185 lbs, but am now comfortably at 200 lbs: roughly an 18% rebound. This is where this post turns down the woo-woo road: do not confuse being comfortable with being happy.

The uncomfortable truth is that “finishing” your journey is never possible; you will never be 100% satisfied with where you are. Either you look at yourself and think that you could be leaner, faster, or stronger, or you look at others and feel envy from seeing people doing better than you. There is always a “King of Kong”. From those claiming not to feel either a desire to do and be more, or plain old envy, are liars. It is literally in your biology to feel this way.

Happiness, defined by a feeling of satisfaction, cannot be maintained indefinitely with the same results. Over time your success will dull and turn to ash in your mouth.

It’s a condition imposed by our hormonal programming: we must always be chasing the larger pool of resources because it represents our continued survival. The reason why we are here is partially because our ancestors were driven by the same insatiable hunger (literally and figuratively - C).

I define comfort as the place where you have internalised what used to require conscious action. Whereas before you had to expend effort to resist junk food, you now do it effortlessly. You’ve turned a conscious decision into a subconscious decision. Achieving “comfort” in a task is what should be our aim, and we experience happiness on the way there because our brain rewards us with the “good feeling” of dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin.

I think people mistakenly define happiness as a state of perennial satisfaction. The problem, is that we are never truly satisfied, because the “good feeling” is only attained in growth. Even the person who meditates for 23 hours a day wants to achieve a higher level of enlightenment. Therefore I believe that we should redefine happiness as “the good feeling that emanates from growth”.

So what is the conclusion? That we can never be happy and therefore should curl up into the foetal position and not even bother? No. From a purely logical point of view, why would you become a recluse, giving yourself no “good feeling” at all, where you could accept your programming and at least enjoy inter-temporal “good feeling”.

The conclusion of our journey must be eternal growth. However, and here’s the kicker, we have to acknowledge and respect the law of diminishing returns. As we pursue a particular path, the return we get from the same effort decreases (we have to put in more to get the same amount out). And so you have to sow the seed of your efforts far and wide, which will ensure the continual flow of “good feeling”.

Since we’ve got quite woo-woo with our discussion, let’s make this a little more practical. Look back at my post from last week, and work out which of the four happy hormones you’re lacking in. Work on the ones that are lagging. If you’re performing well in each area, then find a new hobby or interest to pour yourself into. I find that my interest waxes and wanes over a period of two years, starting with a few months of dabbling, followed by 6 months to a year of intense obsession, then a plateau and a partial return to old ways. It doesn’t make me feel ashamed when I lose some of my interest; it’s natural that when another subject area is giving you that “good feeling” that you devote extra time to it. The virtue in your actions is that you internalised something which previously you had to expend effort to achieve.

That’s all for this week. There aren’t takeaways, as such, but the advice in the preceding paragraph suffices. Accept the cards you’ve been dealt and come to peace with your programming: never stop trying to better yourself.

Until next time,


Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Post 45: Happy Hormones and Food

Hi guys,

Today we’re going to look at something fascinating: “why”. Not the logical why, the one we can think about, but the instinctual why. What are the reasons behind our actions? What are driving them? Why do we pursue paths even though they are against our best interest?

The inspiration for this post was Loretta Breuning’s Habits of a Happy Brain, a book I just finished reading. I’d recommend you do too. It’s a quick one, and introduces you to the “happy hormones” which drive our actions, and the main antagonist: cortisol. That will give you a great understanding of how we develop our responses to various stimuli.

The four hormones described are dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin, and serotonin. In this post we’re going to take a look at each one in turn and how they play a part in the weight loss journey.

So I’m afraid that if you came expecting a list of foods to eat to “make you happy”, you’re not going to leave here satisfied. Instead, I want to explain how all foods can make you happy (hormonally) and why.

Before we start, I’ll introduce the anti-hero of this topic: cortisol. Cortisol, aka stress, is a signal which we interpret as “do something”. When we feel stressed, we get an intense urge to do something to make that bad feeling go away. This is why it’s an anti-hero rather than a bad guy. Cortisol drives us to avoid pain and improve our chances of survival. Without cortisol, we wouldn’t be here today. So on some level, be grateful!


Dopamine is the happiness we gain from finding something we seek. It drove our ancestors to feel rewarded when they found food for themselves and their tribe. You will experience it any time you find something that you were looking for. The only problem is, once we find it the first time, the second time does not elicit quite the same intensity of happiness. We must make an even better find to recreate that feeling of happiness.

For someone losing weight, they will commonly feel a dopamine hit when they stumble across a diet which brings success. You might feel it when you find a style of exercise that works well for you. You will feel it when you’re troubleshooting your health. When I was having problems with lightheadedness and muscle cramps, I would have received a dopamine hit when I found that adding more salt into your diet eliminates the issue.

Whenever someone expects to receive dopamine, and they do not, they experience dopamine disappointment. Cortisol (the urge to do something, e.g. lose weight), drove them to find ways to solve their problem, and now that they’ve hit a plateau, the old methods aren’t as effective. The cortisol pressure is still there, but it isn’t relieved by the dopamine happiness.

What do people do? They go into ever more extreme dieting, or longer or more intense exercise regimes. They might fast for longer each day (if they’re into that), or restrict more and more foods from their diet. If we’re still feeling the urge to “do something”, then we will search desperately to elicit the dopamine hit.


Endorphins are the oddest out of the bunch, because they’re not an independent happy hormone. Endorphins are released in response to pain, and cause you to feel temporarily euphoric. This hormone was perpetrated in evolution because the ability to endure pain allowed us to escape from predators. Endorphins are what cause “runner’s high”, and will be stimulated by all methods of exercise to some extent.

This works in a dieter’s favour, because they feel good every time they exercise. It is stimulated by fasting, and also by caffeine, something regular readers of this blog might have upped recently (up sell! Up sell! - C). This is something I’ve begun to experience recently, a true euphoric feeling when I drink coffee for roughly 30 minutes. I think I’ve deduced that it is the caffeine, rather than the coffee itself, because homemade french-press and decaf don’t have the same effect. I’m keeping a close eye on this one, and limiting my caffeine: self-observation and treating yourself as a human guinea pig is key!

The issue with endorphins, is that like dopamine, you need progressively higher amounts of pain to induce the same level of euphoria. You need to run faster, work out harder, and drink more caffeine. This is how someone starts with a regular coffee, then ends up including extra shots of espresso and drinking it more often! (Not me yet, thankfully… - C)

All of these things, at some point, are going to start to hurt you; you are in effect “chasing the first high”.


Oxytocin is released when we feel accepted in social groups; it’s the hormone that’s released when we are physically near other people. Oxytocin propagated because it encouraged us to stick together in our tribes and work as a unit to hunt and gather.

So far, it might seem that oxytocin is unrelated to weight loss, but it is. Unfortunately, it’s mostly on the negative side. Your new healthy eating habits are likely to leave you out of some social occasions, and your friends will want you to provide consistent justification. That possibility of social loss hurts, or more specifically, we don’t get the oxytocin happiness which comes from “sticking with the herd”.

Continual justification is something that I’ve experienced throughout my own journey; this blog is part of that. I’ve also delved deep into the books, podcasts, and content put out by YouTubers who support the modern nutritional movement. I have a theory that the reason why these forms of media can be so addictive is because they’re stimulating your oxytocin: you and millions of other people are actually part of an online community and it feels good to be accepted. Each time you consume some of their content, you get that oxytocin hit. Eventually you build a pathway in your brain which links this type of media with happiness. This all helps to  lessen the impact of the immediate oxytocin disappointment from your current social group.

But like I said back in Post 28, being a one-man-brand is important, over time your peers’ expectations change, and eventually you’re fully welcomed back into the fold complete with your new persona.

In the meantime, you will suffer some oxytocin disappointment, which is going to put stress on your motivation to continue, even if you are getting results.


Serotonin is the happy hormone we enjoy when we experience a feeling of higher social status. In effect we are happy because our survival chances are higher, which might be through being dominant in a social circle or by aligning with someone who is more dominant than you. An interesting fact about serotonin is that most of it is contained in our guts. This isn’t surprising: the leaders of the pack get first choice of the food available. We become motivated to get the best food, because if we do, we release serotonin which makes us feel superior.

As you begin to see results, you might experience serotonin happiness from being slimmer and more attractive. You might release serotonin because you’re becoming stronger or faster in the gym than your peers. As the amount of social attention you receive increases, you’re reminded by the good feeling of serotonin that your perceived social value is higher.

Here’s a sneakier one: you might get a serotonin release because you resisted the unhealthy food, where others didn’t. Knowing what I know now, I’ve certainly experienced this before. It is also a good explanation for why some people resist the unhealthy food advertised to them 24/7. They’ve trained their brains to resist the cortisol urge to “do something” when presented with junk, and over time they’ve started to reward themselves with feelings of superiority. Over time, your brain starts to link junk food to being healthy and feeling happy.

The unfortunate side, however, is that we will always believe that “the grass is greener”. Always. Like serotonin and endorphins, you are continuously chasing the first high. Being better in some way will only provide temporary happiness, before you have to scuttle off to get your serotonin hit by other means, or with a different group of people. You will always be looking to one-up everyone else. Much like cortisol, this is not bad, it’s just another anti-hero. Without the constant desire to improve ourselves we would still be in the dirt.

This all sounds rather depressing

It does, doesn’t it? From reading the above you would (correctly) realise that we can never be truly satisfied unless we are expanding our horizons. Resting on our laurels is a recipe for misery.

But given the hand we’ve been dealt, let’s think about what we can do about it. First, take a step back, and think about each of the hormones in turn. How are you experiencing each one? Which one do you experience more than others? Could you get more in one area?

Here’s some ideas to promote each of the happy hormones:
  • Dopamine: try out a new vegetable and method of cooking
  • Endorphin: do a HIIT workout
  • Oxytocin: follow me and message me on Twitter (@tomcowlin ;) - C)
  • Serotonin: bring an intricate packed lunch to work and make a big show of it to your colleagues


So there you have it: all your life and your motives reduced to four simple happy hormones and one leather-clad biker bad boy hormone. Here’s this week’s takeaways:
  1. Understand the four happy hormones and cortisol; find out what each of them does, when it’s released, and start to recognise when it is
  2. Appreciate cortisol as the hormone which commands action; watch out when it rears its head, and think “do I want to train my brain to react to this feeling in a certain way”. React the same way to cortisol enough times and that’s what your brain will expect.
  3. Do a hormone analysis and break down where you’re getting each one in your life; is it possible to expand in some areas?

Until next time,


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Post 44: What is Brown Fat?

Hi guys,

I’m away this weekend in the land of dragons; no, not Clapham High Street on a Friday night, but Cardiff, Wales (although the calibre of clientele can be questioned here on occasion too - C). This week’s post is going to be a quick one, due to my temporary absence from Cowlean HQ, but I was determined to whip something out.

Today we’re going to take a look at something called “brown fat”, or brown adipose tissue (BAT) for the super nerds out there who are like me, and how you can take advantage of it’s fat burning abilities.

But please don’t misconstrue this little post as a panacea, it’s just another little tool to slip into your ever-expanding toolbelt (although let’s hope that’s a knowledge based expansion, rather than belly based - C).

So what is brown fat anyway?

We have two types of fat on our bodies: brown fat (which technically comes in two varieties: brown and beige, depending on where it stems from), and white fat i.e. brown adipose tissue (BAT) and white adipose tissue (WAT).

White fat is the stuff we want to get rid of; it’s the stuff that’s hanging off of your body as an emergency fuel source. Most of us have too much of it.

Brown fat is special because it contains more mitochondria (little energy factories) and more capillaries (to supply oxygen and distribute heat). But what makes brown fat more interesting is something called thermogenin. So rather than the mitochondria using fuel to create energy as our muscles do, the presence of thermogenin allows brown fat to turn fuel into heat, which is then distributed around the body.

Brown fat store picture shamelessly lifted from wikipedia...

So what difference does that make?

The difference is that brown fat is metabolically active, i.e. it burns calories, and because of the low demands of the activity itself, most of it is fueled by fat. Your fat is literally eating your other fat! This all sounds great, but there is one condition: first you have to just chill out…

Brown fat is activated when you’re cold, but not too cold. So wearing just a t-shirt out on a spring morning will do, but getting to the point of shivering is too far. At that point your muscles take over and you start to shiver to generate heat (for those super nerds again: brown fat generates heat via non-shivering thermogenesis - C).

Taking advantage of brown fat

As I said at the beginning of this post, this isn’t a cure-all, and you’re not going to drop lots of weight by just being cold. It’s just a little added extra.

Newborn infants have the most brown fat, because they don’t have muscles yet to shiver with. As we grow older, the amount of brown fat we have diminishes, but we still have a little, commonly in our upper chest and neck. On average women have more than men.

You can stimulate brown fat creation and activation by continued cold exposure (but not too cold! - C) over time. A simple way, therefore, would be to exercise outside without that extra layer, or walk to and from the gym if it’s possible. Basically, just get to grips with the cold every now and then!


Just as I promised in the beginning, this was a quick one, but I enjoy putting together these little posts because I’m learning too! Here’s this week’s takeaways:

  1. Brown fat is different to white fat, in that it cans generate and distribute heat
  2. By chilling out but not to the point of shivering, you can activate brown fat, and burn white fat
  3. Face the cold every now and then to activate brown fat

Until next week,