Your Brain on a Diet: Part I

The brain is a biological marvel! It performs thousands of simultaneous functions and gives us the ability to think, reason, and create. Yet, for all these attributes, our brains are primarily concerned with one thing: survival. Why? Because for thousands of years, food was tough to come by. In this regard, storing fat and eating quick sources of energy (like simple sugars) was a good thing, because it enhanced survivability.

In fact, our brains reward us with positive messages when we eat fats and sugars. Specifically, the neurotransmitter dopamine is released, which is a fancy way of saying that the “pleasure centers” of your brain become activated. These are the same pleasure centers stimulated by recreational drugs and sex (and rock and roll).

That reward system was a good thing thousands of years ago, but in today’s glut of instant-access fast food, sugar-laden snacks, and processed food, it’s contributed to an epidemic of obesity. It also means that when you cut back on carbs – and eat “diet foods” like salads and broiled fish – you will not be getting as many of those “positive signals” from your brain to which you’ve become accustomed. No wonder so many “fall off the wagon” in the early phases of cleaning up their diets for the better. But I say, stick with it! Your brain’s thresholds will reset after a week or two, and the cravings will go away.

To accelerate this transition – and ease the “discomfort” of resetting the metabolism that so often derails many with lofty New Year’s resolutions – I recommend this supplement. And no, this is not my product, but rather a supplement I recommend to patients to curb their appetites.

So, how do we “de-condition” our brains from more frequent pleasure stimulation? The good news is that our brain is highly adaptive and can become conditioned or deconditioned, as the case may be, very effectively. So, it’s not that hard once you make it through the first week or so. Here’s what you can do to make the initial phases of your diet changes easier:

  • Firstly, even before making radical food changes, implement portion control – and eat more slowly. Invariably, I find that while a patient may not feel “full” with smaller portions (as many have gotten conditioned to overeating), they find that if they wait 20 or 30 minutes, their appetite is all but gone. Give your body and your brain time to let what you’ve eaten register… before eating more.
  • Develop a healthy “grazing” mentality, with healthy, low-carb/high-protein snacks to help control appetite by maintaining more constant blood sugar and fat levels. (Nuts are a personal favorite of mine).
  • Focus on eating a whole-food diet as much as possible. Wean yourself off processed or refined food, and incorporate less calorically dense foods into your diet: vegetables, lean meats, poultry, fish, and whole grains, for example.  Experimenting with spices and seasonings helps too!
  • If you’re going to eat big or bad (or both), do it in the morning. On a daily basis, your body’s highest metabolic and caloric demands are during the first half of the day. Calories eaten at night, when your body is shutting down for the day, have a higher likelihood of being stored as fat. Larger meals eaten earlier can help provide more constant energy levels, and help control appetite. Most Americans do it backward – they skip breakfast, eat a small lunch, then a big dinner with “comfort snacks” in the evening. That’s a sure way to add body fat, not lose it. Remember this: Breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince, dinner like a pauper.
  • Add more physical activity – get moving! I’m not talking about hitting the gym here (although that should be a given), but rather adding more daily activity and movement. Sitting is the new smoking in terms of health-risk data, and for good reason! That means taking walk breaks, stretch breaks, standing breaks, and doing whatever else you can do to become more mobile throughout the day.

I tell all of my patients that I’m not as impressed by someone who loses 20 pounds in a month as I am with someone who loses 20 pounds in a year but keeps the weight OFF. Don’t fight your brain. Work with it instead. Give it time to reset. Be determined and committed but be patient. And have realistic expectations about your fat loss strategy. We’re in this for the long haul, right? Health is a lifestyle. A diet is not.

In Part II of “Your Brain On A Diet,” we’ll look at the tale of two brain hormones in the battle over appetite. In the meantime, eat well and be healthy!