June 13, 2023

By Courtney Wise and Diana Hembree

Good morning, MindSite News readers. In this edition, we report on new findings that challenge the belief that losing weight is simply a matter of willpower. In other news, cultural stigma around mental health can make seeking therapy extraordinarily difficult. Plus: Reflecting on biological evidence that gratitude is good for your mental health.

We would also like to congratulate our MindSite News writers for winning 7 awards in the Digital Health Awards 2023 contest. (We’ll include more about these in an upcoming issue). Finally, we’d like to invite everyone to register for our live online panel “Breaking Away From Hate,” which talks about what draws Americans to hate groups and how to help extricate them (see below).

Please join our upcoming online event this week: “Breaking Away From Hate”

The panel discussion will feature former white supremacists, a deradicalization specialist, and a psychiatry professor doing research with anti-hate groups who talk about the psychology of hate and how to help people exit. We look forward to seeing you there: register today to save your place!

“Obesity impairs brain responses to nutrients”

A new study published earlier this week found that the brain responses of people with obesity are impaired and don’t respond appropriately to nutrients in the gut. Moreover, the brain impairment remains even after losing weight. That suggests that dieting and a“calories in, calories out” approach  isn’t necessarily enough for a long-term weight loss strategy. “It’s not just simply a lack of willpower,” said Mireille Serlie of Yale University, lead author of the study, to STAT News. “There’s a biological process ongoing that really explains why people are struggling so much with obesity.” 

In total, the study included 58 participants, 30 with obesity and 28 without obesity. Researchers infused sugar nutrients, fat nutrients, or tap water as a control directly into the stomachs of participants to discover how their brains responded to them. Doing this also allowed scientists to eliminate brain responses that might have come from looking at, smelling or actually tasting food. “Using brain imaging, researchers saw that when people without obesity received nutrients, they experienced reduced activity in areas of the brain involved in food intake, suggesting the brain is signaling to them that they’ve received food and no longer need more. But in people with obesity, those changes were not detected,” according to the study, which was published in Nature Metabolism.

Later on, participants with obesity adhered to a supervised 12-week diet that resulted in weight loss of at least 10 percent of their starting body weight. After conducting the same tests, researchers found no changes in brain responses, despite the weight loss, suggesting that dieting alone isn’t enough to eliminate obesity. “All too often, people think that if you’re overweight, it’s really simple, just stop eating and you lose weight — problem solved,” said Paul Kenny, chair of neuroscience at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and unaffiliated with the study. “Papers like this get to the fact that it’s not so easy. When you consume certain foods that result in weight gain, that can actually remodel the brain and how the brain works and those changes can be very long-lasting,” Kenny said. “And those long-lasting changes presumably are influencing your choices regarding food in the future.”

Bringing immigrant parents on board when seeking mental health treatment

Cultural stigmas around mental health can make seeking help incredibly difficult, according to therapist Sahaj Kaur Kohli, whose parents are Indian immigrants and whose grandparents were refugees. “When I did finally seek therapy in my 20s, my immigrant parents perceived it as their failure,”  she wrote in a column for the Washington Post. “What did it say about them that their own daughter needed to turn to a complete stranger for help?” 

Kohli’s experience isn’t singular to immigrant families: Asians, Latinos and Black people are all significantly less likely to seek mental health care than their White peers. And, Kohli notes, indigenous communities struggle with mental health issues at rates higher than any other racial or ethnic group in the nation, but they have neither the insurance coverage or easy geographical access to secure effective care. In the face of all of that, how does one broach the subject with family who may be leery of therapy?

Kohli outlined some key strategies to address the subject with skeptical parents or other relatives you want on board. First, be clear about why you want their support. Did something happen the whole family needs to address, or do you just want them to understand why you’re seeking therapy? Being clear can help you plan what to say. Then, she advises, only share what you absolutely need to share. “Keeping this part of your life separate from the judgment and opinions of unsupportive family members can be protective and necessary,” said Han Ren, a licensed psychologist. Use language that your family is familiar with and understands; choose pop culture references and avoid ‘therapy speak’ unless explicitly needed. Kohli adds that emphasizing how mental health is as vital as physical health—and connected to physical health—may also help.

In other news…

Do you practice gratitude? If not, get ready to. The New York Times reports that showing gratitude, receiving thanks for your own kindness, and witnessing acts of gratefulness can all contribute to your mental wellbeing—especially when you’re feeling at your worst. The outcomes aren’t just from self-reported good feelings after giving thanks, either. Twenty years ago, psychologist Robert A. Emmons conducted a study that found “counting one’s blessings” benefited their mental health, personal relationships, and physical wellness. “What impresses me are the objective, biologically verifiable outcomes that go beyond self-report measures,” he said, with multiple studies citing lowered blood pressure, lesser depressive symptoms, and better sleep as a result. 

Twenty-one years ago, Brad Ryan’s parents got divorced and he fell out of touch with his grandmother, Joy. Keeping in touch with one another was difficult, and while in vet school, Brad found himself depressed, particularly after the suicide of a classmate in 2015. He reached out to his grandmother for support, a move that kicked off a journey to a world record. Together, they’ve visited every national park in the US, and Joy has officially become the oldest woman to do so. She likened her witness of the redwoods in Redwood National Park to our own capacity for moving forward, even after difficult times. “They’ve been struck by lightning,” she told NPR. “And you think: that takes courage, after you’ve been struck by lightning to say, ‘I’m gonna keep on growing.'”

The state of Utah is offering farmers vouchers to receive services that support their mental health. Farmers can apply for up to $2,000 in vouchers from the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food to cover services related to behavioral health in an effort to alleviate stress, suicidal ideation, and other serious mental health conditions, KUTV reports.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or experiencing suicidal thoughts, call or text 988 to reach the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline and connect in English or Spanish. If you’re a veteran press 1. If you’re deaf or hard of hearing dial 711, then 988. Services are free and available 24/7.

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Type of work:

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow...

Diana Hembree, MS, is MindSite News co-founding editor. She is a health and science journalist who served as a senior editor at Time Inc. Health and its physician’s magazine, Hippocrates, and as news...