In this gripping 2 part episode of All Fired Up, I explore the shadowy world of “Bright Line Eating”, a super extreme diet cult which cherry picks neuroscience to convince people that they are ‘food addicts’, and then sells one of the world’s most restrictive (and expensive) diet regimes to keep people hooked on the dream of achieving ‘goal weight’. Bright Line Eating is the lucrative brainchild of neuroscientist Susan Peirce Thompson, a charismatic saleswoman who holds nothing back when it comes to the hard sell. Join me as I ask the question, who IS Susan Peirce Thompson – a food addict who has finally found the answer to her addictions, or someone who is still desperately stuck in her eating disorder? We also speak with neuroscientist Dr Sandra Aamodt, who literally attended the SAME UNIVERSITY as Susan Peirce Thompson, and has also experienced eating and body issues, but found peace through mindful and intuitive eating and body acceptance rather than continuing to white knuckle the revolving door of weight cycling. Dr Aamodt has very different ideas regarding this whole idea of food ‘addiction’. Spoiler alert: Food addiction models = Binge Eating Disorder rebranded!  DO NOT MISS this story, it’s a ripper! But CW – these 2 episodes have a lot of talk about weight, details of diet rules, and eating disorders, so take care if you think you might be triggered.


 

 

Shownotes

 

 

  • Hello listeners! Remember me? I’m back! What a year we’ve had. I am back from a break where I was taking care of life for a while. Now I’m back and angrier than ever. Today’s episode is a two-parter, and we’ll be keeping the energy and the rants going on a regular basis again.
  • Remember the Crappy Awards earlier this year? One of the nominations has been gnawing away at me. This is from Dr Martina Zangger, who sent us a rant about Bright Line Eating, a program by Susan Peirce Thompson. Bright Line Eating is a severely restrictive diet, and a very expensive program. Martina shares with us that she experienced Orthorexia and was at risk of Anorexia while engaging with the program – she was obsessed with every bite of food that passed her lips, and says she became a ‘not very nice person’ while so hangry and feeling superior to other people. That feeling of being superior and special was encouraged within the program. After two years, Martina was able to move away from the program and regain the weight she lost, and that process was so disheartening. However, two years after leaving that program, Martina is so much more at peace with her body. She’s able to find enjoyment in food, and in sharing food with friends and family. Bright Line Eating  is making Susan Peirce Thompson rich and is such an unethical program from a practitioner who should know better. 
  • I’m still simmering with rage over this Crappy nomination. The impact of programs like this is devastating on people’s lives. Martina lost two years of her life and experienced an eating disorder, and her story of recovery needs to be heard. How are programs like this still happening, and being sold at such enormous profit?
  • After I heard Martina’s story, I’ve been neck-deep in Susan Peirce Thompson and Bright Line Eating. It’s more than a diet, it’s more like a cult. There’s a variety of techniques being used in it to sell problematic ideas and encourage eating disordered behaviour in an apparent attempt to free yourself from ‘disordered behaviour’ – a mindfuck of the next level. 
  • So, I’ve been reading and researching and I’m ready to dive into a two part series – this episode is about Bright Line Eating and Susan Peirce Thompson. We’re going to talk about her story, her book, and more broadly talk about the topic of neuroscience as it applies to body weight, and also dive into food addiction models. In the next episode, we’ll talk more with Martina and her experience with the program, and we’ll round out the deep dive with a closer look at the incredible amount of money Bright Line Eating has made.
  • I really need to preface this episode with a trigger warning, a content warning, about numbers and weight. If that’s particularly triggering for you, maybe these two episodes are ones to avoid. Usually we avoid numbers, and in this instance we’re using them as examples of the harm that diet culture can cause, and as examples of inaccuracies. 
  • We’ll be talking with neuroscientist Dr Sandra Aamodt about addiction and regulating body weight.
  • So, the book. I’ve read the whole thing. ‘Bright Line Eating: the Science of Living Happy, Thin and Free” by Susan Peirce Thompson, 2017. To begin with, Susan is a really good storyteller and has a compelling personal story of how she came to this way of living. And that’s the thing with so many of these diet gurus, isn’t it? They’re quite compelling, charismatic, often good writers. Susan is from California and her parents were reformed hippies. She grew up in a house which sounded super ‘healthy’. Her mother was thin and always dieting, and Susan recounts how she was doing diets with her mum when she was 10 years old – “neither of us had weight to lose, it was just about being maximally healthy”. Susan paints herself as a kid who was always interested in food, even addicted, compelled to compulsively eat food. What I get from reading this was that this child grew up in a house with little food choice around, no processed food, quite restrictive. We know from lots of research in this area that kids who grow up in households with little food variety and where ‘bad’ food is banned, those kids are quite likely to grow up as binge-eating adults. And kids who diet early have a higher risk of developing eating disorders. There’s also a genetic component with eating disorders, which makes me wonder about Susan’s mother and her own eating issues. 
  • One thing that stuck out was the vivid descriptions of what restricting her food felt like as a child – powerful, a feeling of being in control. For most of us on a diet, we feel pretty crappy. For some of us, perhaps those with quite a restrictive relationship with food, that experience of restriction is quite elating. They describe that feeling of being in power, being in control, and get hooked on that feeling of not eating. There’s a disturbing description of Susan ‘going off sugar’ at age 12, of feeling empowered.
  • She also related how, even with these feelings of being empowered, she would sneak food and hide food – which she reads as evidence of her ‘addiction’, but I read as being evidence of the severity of her restriction. 
  • By the time Susan was 15, she described herself as ‘overweight’, and feeling ‘enormous’ compared to her thin mum. Again, she unquestioningly accepts that there was something wrong with her body at 15. My non-diet lens tells me that our bodies are changing when we’re 15. It’s perfectly normal to gain weight as you grow, maybe it was just growth? She continued dieting and stumbled into drugs, from ages 14-20, including acid, ecstasy, meth, crack. Quite serious. She talks about the impact on her weight – when you’re on drugs like that, you do reduce your weight. It’s a harrowing story, to be hooked on such terrible drugs for your adolescence.
  • Susan found herself at rock bottom and in a 12 Step program at age 20, and found recovery from drug and alcohol addiction through the 12 Step model. That’s an amazing story! It is not easy to turn your life around like that, and she did it. But in the book, that victory didn’t bring her peace, because her weight increased and she felt terrible about it. She was also still thinking of herself as a food addict, and began attending 12 Step programs for overeating. Episode 30 of All Fired Up is about Overeaters Anonymous – check it out. It looks like Susan did stuff like that for years and years and years without reducing her weight. 
  • It’s clear in the book that Susan is not perceiving herself as someone who has issues with her relationship with food, but as someone with weight to lose who is addicted to food. At times she received diagnoses of Binge Eating Disorder and Bulimia, but she did not receive any eating disorder treatment. In 2003, she joined a more extreme unnamed 12 Step, which I believe may be ‘FA’ or ‘Food Addicts Anonymous’. Like all the other 12 Step programs, they are free support groups to help people who perceive themselves as food addicts – and FA has very strict rules. No sugar, no flour. Three meals a day, absolutely no other food. You have to ‘commit’ your meal plan each night to a buddy, mentor, sponsor in the program for the next day. You weigh out each meal according to a strict meal plan. It’s intense, it’s extreme. There’s a lot of mentorship and buddyship to ‘support’ each other – but I would say it’s more like policing each other, to make sure they don’t eat. Susan was happy about finally losing weight in this strict program. 
  • But she grew to be distressed with the amount of time the program was taking up – about 20 hours a week of planning, talking to mentors and more. She mentions that her husband considered leaving her, and she was annoyed with the lack of science around the food rules in the program. By this point, Susan had gone to university and studied cognitive science and was now a neuroscientist. She decided she was going to write a book and start an online program, combining her knowledge of the brain with the strict program. What she calls ‘bright lines’, I call ‘very strict rules’ or ‘diet prison’. 
  • The ‘online boot camps’ she began offering took off very quickly, and eventually she hired a team and  published her book. The diet in the book is basically the same as the FA diet – but FA is free, and Bright Line Eating is for-profit. Her husband is now the CFO. The bootcamps are very expensive, as are all the add-ons in the program. Every level of support requires payment, and Susan justified charging this much money for the program by saying that it’s not just the FA program, it’s a community and it’s combined with neuroscience, and that her team is going ‘cutting edge research in the field’. So, not only has she monetised a popular 12 Step program, but she’s using ‘neuroscience’ and the cache of her PhD to help her ideas gain cred. 
  • Susan talks a lot about the brain, and seems to understand that body weight is tightly controlled by our brain (particularly the hypothalamus) and understands that only a small percentage of dieters keep weight off long term. She understands that the hypothalamus is like a thermostat that controls body weight, and it’s out of our conscious control. So, she pays lip service to that, and then spends the rest of the book talking about how her neuroscience tips will fix that – as if it’s broken. 
  • What’s being missed here? The science that shows us changes in body weight are countered by these established processes in our brain. She never mentions this – the ‘defended weight range’ – which is pretty fundamental science about how our brains defend body weight. In her whole book, she never mentions it. In a minute we’ll talk more with Dr Aamodt about that.
  • Susan does talk a lot about leptin regulating our body weight. Leptin is a  hormone stored in fat cells, and as fat cells get larger they secrete leptin which tells our brain that we’re comfortable, we’re at the right weight, we don’t need to seek out more food. Susan claims that people in larger bodies have too much leptin that isn’t getting to our brains to tell us to stop eating – she says that larger bodied people are ‘leptin resistant’ and our brains think we’re starving and tell us to eat more. She claims that the cause of leptin resistance is insulin resistance, which is caused directly by processed food. Very sweeping generalisations – in essence she is saying that larger people are insatiably eating because leptin is being blocked by our brainstem, which causes us to mindlessly eat processed food all day. So basically, we are all ‘leptin resistant’ humans, mindless processed food eating machines.
  • I’ve got some issues! Not all large people are insulin resistant. Insulin resistance is impacted by an enormous range of factors – genetic, environmental and social. It’s incredibly simplistic to say it’s just due to processed food. For Susan, anyone who is larger is by definition sick or deficient. She continually refers to the ‘right size body’, which is your ‘thin’ body. A complete disregard for body diversity, and lack of data to back up her claims about leptin.
  • She’s also left out the impact of weight loss dieting on leptin. When we try and diet and lose weight, our leptin levels drop. This drop stimulates a huge increase in our appetite and interest in food. So, although she’s concentrating on this idea that larger people are leptin resistant, people may instead have lower leptin levels due to dieting and that’s what is telling our brains that we’re starving. So, leptin drops and interest in food is very well documented in neuroscience – because it’s a very primitive and important danger signal to the brain. 
  • Let’s not forget Susan’s target audience of middle-aged women, who likely have dieted many times before and may have lower leptin levels due to this. She knows this. She even mentions the Biggest Loser study which notes how damaged people’s metabolisms were from strict dieting. She says that during the ‘weight loss’ phase of her bootcamp, your metabolism will slow down something like 80-90%, but in the next breath says that there’s no evidence that this will continue to happen – “we’ve never seen evidence of this in Bright Line Eating, there is no reason for alarm”. This really annoyed me. She has no evidence of it because she’s done no research on it. Simply because you don’t look for harm doesn’t mean there’s no harm. 
  • Another claim from the book is that you can choose your goal weight based on the lowest weight you’ve ever been, and she pretty much guarantees you can reach it. This flies in the face of weight science and our understanding of all the factors outside of our control. There’s no evidence to say that Bright Line Eating is any different from any other weight loss program.
  • Talking about cravings – Susan describes them as a “brain-based bingeing mechanism”, located in the nucleus accumbens which has become ‘overstimulated’ by the plentiful food in our current environment. She uses her own experience as a drug addict to paint this vivid picture, describing her need for higher doses of drugs to get the same high. That is tolerance – it’s well documented in addiction literature, especially for opiate receptors. Sarah says food behaves in the same way – flour and sugar in particular are acting in the same way as heroin in our brain. She doesn’t have very much data to support this idea that flour and sugar behave like a drug. She mentions rat studies to back up some of her sugar claims, but even she admits there’s nothing in the research to show flour is addictive.
  • Food addiction was excluded from the category “substance related and addictive disorders” in the DSM-V, due to lack of evidence. We’ll hear more from neuroscientist Dr Aamodt on this.
  • One of the ways Susan is trying to convince us that sugar and flour are toxic poisons is pretty weird. She asks us to google images of flour, sugar and heroin and look at how similar they are. For the record – things that look like drugs are not necessarily drugs. In her view, processing things is what makes them drugs. In Susan’s view, the way sugar is processed makes it a more toxic drug. What about the way we process mint tea? Dried chillies?
  • I think that this Bright Line plan will keep people in a state of deprivation and restriction, which increases those feelings of addiction. The longer we’re deprived, the stronger our desire will become for the forbidden thing. We know that if people are full when they’re doing an experiment where they’re exposed to food stimuli, their reward centres are less activated. When you think about it, you’re never going to be full on Bright Line Eating and you’re going to feel like an addict. And if you then go to a bootcamp or on one of the forums, it’s going to feel more real.
  • Another bugbear – she repeatedly scares people by referring to food in this book as ‘drugs’, ‘toxins’, ‘poisons’. But then later she says it’s fine for children to eat them, because they’re ‘young enough to burn off the calories’. What?
  • This is a woman who is desperately attached to thinness as a measure of self-worth. 
  • If she really believes sugar and flour were toxic poisons, why is she recommending them to children?
  • The rules she’s lifted from FA are full on, and she’s using neuroscience-talk to give them a sense of validation. 
  • “It takes some willpower to set up and then little to none when it becomes automatic”. Susan has science-washed extreme deprivation and disguised it as normal. 
  • Susan likens the automatic level of food behaviours to brushing your teeth – but our bodies and brains aren’t hard-wired to desire tooth-brushing as a survival mechanism, and feel under threat when we haven’t brushed out teeth in a while. Susan knows this. She wouldn’t have to set up such extensive support systems if permanent restriction truly was automatic.
  • Introducing Dr Aamodt, who wrote the book “Why Diets Make Us Fat: The Unintended Consequences of Our Obsession with Weight Loss”. She also has a much-watched Ted Talk about why she stopped dieting and switched to mindful eating, which has been watched by 4.5 million people.
  • Before she was an author, Dr Aamodt was Editor-In–Chief of Nature Neuroscience, a leading scientific journal in the field of brain research.
  • Dr Aamodt was pulled into neuroscience due to personal experience –  as a teenager she remembers her mother commenting that she was “eating like a fat person”. She was not at a higher weight at the time, and looks back at photos of that time and thinks “what was mum doing?”.
  • Dr Aamodt began making complicated food rules for herself, like not being allowed to open the refrigerator herself. It was almost like that comment unlocked disordered eating for her.
  • Sandra then spent about 30 years cycling through diets, and while she never met the definition for an eating disorder she veered very close. Sandra vividly remembers how difficult it was to force herself to move away from dieting.
  • In her early 30’s, Sandra was exposed to some feminist writings about dieting which seemed to unlock some things she’d kind of known for years but hadn’t been paying attention to, such as weight being neurologically controlled. She hadn’t connected the dots that her own body would behave that way.
  • We’re biological animals with physiological regulation, but we’re also social animals living in culture where we’re expected to look and eat a certain way. It’s as if one day someone said to Sandra, “you don’t have to do that”. A blog Sandra credits with some of these early moments of unlearning is ‘Shapely Prose’.
  • The biggest advantage of not dieting for Sandra turned out to be psychological, not physical – the amount of mental space that weight and eating were taking up in her brain turned out to be unbelievable when it stopped. She describes it as like having ringing in your ears for your entire life, then one day someone turns the ringing off.
  • In Susan’s experience, you can’t just tell people ‘don’t diet’ – you have to tell them what to do instead. The message of ‘don’t control your weight’ is too uncomfortable. 
  • Sandra came across mindful eating, which gave some structure to make that transition away from dieting.
  • Sandra initially didn’t know when she was hungry – how could she, after all those years of strictly regulating herself? 
  • There’s a lot of psychological research showing that people who diet frequently are not good at picking up interoception signals from their bodies – such as feeling your heart beating. But even after many years of ignoring your body, you can reconnect and hear those signals again. Sandra is much better at it than she used to be.
  • Unlearning takes time! All those neuroplastic changes can be reversed, if you take the time and energy to do it. For Sandra, moving from dieting to not dieting was a huge upgrade.
  • What is the ‘set point’? Scientists call it the ‘defended range’ which Sandra says is a better term. It’s a small range of weight where your body is comfortable. When you’re within your defended range, weight works the way that random people on the internet think that it works all the time. You can make your lifestyle changes and nudge it a little up or down. It’s the range where your body and your brain are not fighting you. The body is comfortable.
  • Once you get outside that range, in either direction, this is where the brain says ‘this is not right, we’re not regulating properly, we need to fix this’. And this is where calories in, calories out becomes unreliable and the way you process food starts to change in dramatic ways. Metabolism changes to try and get you back into that defended range. 
  • It’s normal to be more hungry when you’re not getting enough food!
  • It does seem as though the responses are asymmetrical – that the body’s compensatory mechanisms become more intense over time if you’re under your defended range, but will become less intense over time if you’re above your defended range. So, your brain is much more relaxed with being at a higher weight than being under your defended range. From an evolutionary perspective, starving is really serious and you should never take it lightly. 
  • How do we know our defended range? It’s genetic to begin with – there are strong genetic influences on it. A number of life experiences can affect it, for instance people who didn’t get enough sleep as children generally have a higher defended range as adults. Also, children who had a lot of stress and/or trauma in their lives have a higher defended range as adults. 
  • If your childhood environment is scary, unpredictable, like something bad will happen at any time – there’s a strong evolutionary argument that it would be okay for your body to store extra energy for future dangerous times. The body makes sense! Your body does its best to survive.
  • There’s a genetic link as well in who is susceptible to constantly being invited to ignore their bodies, and whose bodies have such strong hunger and fullness signals that they seem to be completely immune to those kinds of external messaging. 
  • And then dieting itself – attempting to get under your ‘defended range’. The brain desires that we stay within that defended range and functions 24/7 without a break – and we try to combat this with willpower, which we cannot do 24/7. We can do a lot of these things for a while, but at some point it gets to be like holding your breath. 
  • The food addiction model – the idea that if we remove certain foods from our diet we can permanently change our set point, our weight, and our brains will relax and finally do what diet culture says they should do. What does Sandra think about that?
  • Sandra thinks the food addiction model is basically a rebranding of Binge Eating Disorder. The restriction itself is what produces the sense of being ‘out of control’. The easiest way to see that is in experiments on rodents, who aren’t bombarded with media messages telling them their bodies are unacceptable. 
  • Inducing Binge Eating Disorder in rats is actually done quite reliably – rats are starved to about 70-80% of their starting weight, then given high sugar foods. The rats will eat past fullness – they will ‘stuff’ themselves. If you make this a cycle and repeat several times, you can get rats to the point where they will binge on regular boring rat chow. They don’t even require the food to taste good to overeat it. That sounds familiar, right? We are those rats. We often miss the deprivation with Binge Eating Disorder and focus only on the eating.
  • There are also changes in the brain’s reward system that are associated with that behaviour, but that doesn’t immediately jump out at Sandra as being that the solution is to restrict what we eat. If the restriction causes the disorder, it probably isn’t also the cure.
  • If the rats weren’t starved, would they have this response to high sugar food? No. Rats who aren’t starved and are presented with novel foods will eat until full and then stop.
  • These rats are not trying to diet, they’re not struggling with mixed cultural messages – they’re just having a straightforward biological response to a stimulus that suggests that maybe you should put away some reserves for the future because every so often, somebody comes and takes your food away.
  • It’s quite a simple, elegant, neurobiological response to famine.
  • So, the food addiction model is rebranded deprivation models, or Binge Eating Disorder models. Nobody has come up with evidence that is convincing Sandra that it’s any more than that. The scales that measure food addiction have a lot of overlap with the scales that measure Binge Eating Disorder.
  • A definition of addiction that Sandra likes is ‘when we continue to want things that we do not like” being drawn to repeat behaviours that you don’t actually enjoy. And some people would describe Binge Eating Disorder in that way, but Sandra doesn’t think that implies that the treatment is doing more of what created it in the first place (restriction).
  • Huge thanks to Dr Sandra Aamodt for sharing her experience and  bringing us some logic and more of a whole picture, not just a narrow view. In some ways, Dr Aamodt and Susan Peirce Thompson are quite similar. They both grew up in diet culture, both developed eating issues as a result of trying to control their body weight, and they’re both neuroscientists. However, one has chosen to monetize this in the Bright Line Eating program, and one has chosen to help people find real freedom. The idea of ‘freedom’ in Bright Line Eating is very, very different from the idea of freedom that Dr Aamodt and I (Louise) have. Ours is about laying down our weapons and learning to reconnect. 
  • Next episode we’ll talk with Dr Martina Zangger about her experience with Bright Line Eating, and look at the economic reality of how enormous this machine is. And more dodgy research claims! It’ll be a zinger. 

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