You can only get out of a brain-function trap when you know you’re in one.
—©Arlene R. Taylor PhD
Nearly two-thirds of the population may be outside ideal weight ranges. Some are obsessed with their weight. Some do little more than gripe or whine. Others play yo-yo as their weight edges up during holidays, in winter months, or during periods of stress and falls in between. Still others go on yet another diet. Entrepreneurs regularly make their fortune on the back of the diet craze. For their part the dieters are altering their metabolic set point and, even though they lose a few kilos, may also lose optimum brain function.
Does it really matter what you weigh? It certainly can! Your heart pumps blood through 100 miles of additional blood vessels for every excess pound of fat. The number of unneeded pounds you pack around can impact every facet of your life including your risk for:
- Increased fatigue
- Decreased energy
- Health challenges such as cancer, stroke, heart attack, and chronic diseases
- Decreased longevity
And that doesn’t include your increased risk for requiring additional closet space to house several sets of clothes in different sizes, or the whack to your self-esteem, or the recycling discouragement, or the loss of hope and enthusiasm, or a variety of health challenges!
Fad Diets Do Not Work
Studies have shown that most diets do not work in the long term. According to Brent W. Bost, MD, author of the Hurried Woman Syndrome, dieting sends a signal to your body that food is scarce. Since your body perceives it is being starved it becomes more efficient at holding onto the calories you do ingest, even when you exercise. This means that you may lose some weight in the short term as the brain and body temporarily respond to something new and different, but when you stop dieting and your calorie intake returns to previous levels, you begin to put the weight back on. Since your body has been reprogrammed to be more efficient with the same calorie load you had before dieting, you tend to gain weight faster and can end up weighing more than you did initially, often with an increase in the proportion of fat as compared to muscle tissue.
Dr. Bost is especially emphatic about fad diets. He says they don’t work, period, and cites three main reasons. Fad diets:
- Are usually unbalanced and can turn on survival genes that make the diet lose its effectiveness over time
- Don’t allow for flexibility in food selection, nor do they match your habitual eating patterns, so are difficult to sustain over time
- Require a change to another diet method or strategy for long-term weight control once your weight has been reduced
Here is a fourth reason. When the majority of your activities in life don’t match your brain bent, what your brain does energy-efficiently, it screams for glucose because it is tired and needs more energy. You ingest more calories in an attempt to combat brain exhaustion and the end result is weight gain. Prolonged adapting is likely to trump the diet every time, at least in the long term.
In her book 101 Questions your Brain has asked about itself but Couldn’t Answer until Now, Faith Hickman Brynie reports that dieting starves the brain of serotonin. Without sufficient levels of serotonin to signal satisfaction, dieters tend to overeat. (The brain registers it is satisfied after about 15 minutes of moderate eating.) Low levels of serotonin have been associated with feelings of depression. It’s not a pretty picture!
Perhaps equally worrisome, studies have shown that dieting can damage body systems, especially the brain! Many weight-reduction programs severely limit carbohydrates that are a good source of glucose for the brain. Jean Carper puts it this way in her book Your Miracle Brain: the harder you use your brain the more important it is to have adequate blood and brain glucose.
Centuries ago on this planet our ancestors obtained carbohydrates by eating fruits, vegetables, beans, and mostly whole grains. These foods produced gradual blood sugar rises that were compatible with good brain function (as compared to many of today’s foods that are made from fine-particle flours, albeit enriched, and that spike blood sugar). Choose whole grain pasta and bread, and a whole-wheat pretzel or whole-wheat tortillas instead of white. Eat a bowl of oatmeal for breakfast or try whole grain crackers instead of saltier, buttery choices. But give your brain complex carbohydrates!
Although the brain accounts for only about 2% of the body’s entire weight, it typically uses 22% of all calories ingested and can consume 20%-30% of the body’s entire energy. The brain stores so little glucose that it would be all used up within 10 minutes it not replenished. If blood glucose reserves are not available, memory and learning decline. Nothing is more critical to your brain than the type of sugar (glucose) that circulates in your blood and this is largely determined by what you eat.
Are you caught in the diet trap? Escape begins when you recognize and acknowledge that you are stuck in its circular web. There are myriad ways of breaking this cycle and getting on a path to attain and maintain your optimum weight. Here are some things to consider that have been helpful on my weight-management journey.
1. Your Generational Inheritance
Do some family-of-origin work and identify patterns in your family system(s). Look for eating habits, time of eating, solitary versus everyone-at-the-table meals, a tendency toward high or low metabolic rates, commitment to regular exercise, and so on. How do your behaviors compare with generational patterns?
Do you eat hurriedly while watching TV or on the run between appointments? The faster you eat the more calories you usually ingest. More leisurely meals can be a choice, at least part of the time. So can putting your fork down between bites and chewing your food more thoroughly, avoiding stressful or controversial topics at meal times, turning off the television, or listening to soothing music while you enjoy your food.
What are your food preferences? Children tend to replicate in adulthood what they learned growing up. Some family systems emphasize carbohydrates, others proteins, and still others fruits and vegetables. Some place great emphasis on home-prepared food while others exist primarily on fast foods. Maybe you grew up believing that the four food groups were “fast, fried, fat, and frozen,” or were taught not to waste anything so you didn’t, and it went to your waist?
Much of our socialization centers on eating. Food is available at most celebrations: births, deaths, holidays, weddings, graduations, promotions, confirmations or bar mitzvahs, you name it! And then there are the potlucks and buffets where more food is available than some people need to eat in an entire month, along with expectations to taste everything. Magazines are filled with pictures of food and glossy retouched photos of models who are at an “ideal weight.” Many pictures are accompanied by diet instructions for “how you can look like this, too!” Right! Inappropriate expectations of how you should look (as compared to models who may be six feet tall and borderline anorexic) can take its toll, especially if you already have issues related to self-esteem and personal boundaries.
2. Your Stress Management Style
Stress is part of living. We wouldn’t want it any other way since the absence of stress is death. When your brain and body can no longer respond to requests for change (one definition of stress)—you are history! Unmanaged stress can negatively impact your life.
The more stressful your environment the more likely you are to gravitate toward simple carbohydrates (e.g., snacking between meals or while watching television) that can increase serotonin levels in the brain. Avoid high fat/high sugar foods. Remember that the word “stressed” is the word “desserts” spelled backwards! Avoid caffeine. This substance can stimulate the release of cortisol, a stress hormone.
What is your personal stress-management style? Do you overeat when you are stressed, or do you starve? Do you eat one way in public and another in secret? Do you use laxatives frequently? Do you binge and purge?
Managing stressors effectively involves evaluating expectations (yours as well as those of others) and selecting the ones you want to include in your life script. What type of body and bone structure runs in your family? Tall and willowy? Short and stocky? Thick or thin? What are your expectations about your appearance? Evaluate discrepancies between expectations and reality as you establish guidelines for optimum weight.
Stressors differ for different brains (e.g., one person’s pleasure is another’s poison) but all stressors interact with the brain because it is the nucleus of your being. The goal is to identify your stressors, get rid of those that are negative, insofar as possible, and create an effective management plan for the others. Live the 20:80 Rule: 20% of the negative effects to your brain and body is due to the stressor, 80% is due to what you think about the stressor and the credibility you give to it. It's important to pre-plan effective stress-management techniques and implement them on consistent basis.
3. Your Daily Water Intake
Some researchers estimate that the average American over the age of 50 is dehydrated. These individuals usually don’t drink enough water each day or they ingest substances (e.g., caffeine, medications) that act as diuretics. Dehydration can increase the production of free radicals and contribute to premature aging. In addition, a sense of thirst can be mistaken for hunger. This means that you may be tempted to eat when what you really need is to drink. Water!
Or you may be in habit of going for a high-calorie beverage such as soda drinks or alcohol when you are thirsty. Diet drinks can sabotage your progress, too. Diet drinks can stimulate the release of insulin. That results in a blood sugar low, and that prompts you to increase the number of calories you ingest the next time you eat.
Research from the Mayo Clinic (reported in the Sept-Oct 2000 issue of Vibrant Life)found that while eight glasses a day has long been the recommended intake for most healthy adults, these individuals should aim to drink one milliliter of water for every calorie they burn. The average man who metabolizes about 2,900 calories a day should have 2,900 milliliters of water, or about 12 cups. A woman who burns 2,200 calories a day needs about 9 cups of water (one 8-ounce measuring cup of water equals 236 milliliters of water).
4. Your Exercise Routine
Exercise has been called a general antioxidant. It is vitally important for the immune system as well as for your brain. What are your exercise habits? According to Dr. Kenneth Guiffre in The Care and Feeding of Your Brain, exercise gives the brain many of the things it needs to boot up efficiently.
Exercise is known to raise baseline serotonin levels and decrease the amount of hydrocortisone in the brain. Those who exercise regularly seem to be more resilient to the exhausting effects of stress on the brain.
Shed that couch-potato routine. Exercise for thirty minutes every day. Eventually this can help to change your metabolic set point. The possibilities are almost limitless. Walk, bike, skate, dance, swim, or jazzercise. Listen to cassette tapes or CDs while you walk on your treadmill or work out at a health club. Read your favorite book or watch a favorite movie from atop your stationary bike.
People who are bedridden or who must use a wheelchair can do chair exercises. A physician once told me, “I exercise only on specific days of the week—on the days I eat.”
Here are references related to exercise from three authors (refer to Selected References on my website for others):
- Physical exercise pumps more blood to the brain’s frontal cortex, raises levels of free-radical fighters, and spurs growth of dendrites on brain neurons. —Jean Carper. Your Miracle Brain. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2000.
- Any physical exercise can improve your brain’s performance. Concentrate on exercises that help to challenge the equilibrating powers of the cerebellum (e. g., balance, strength in the legs, dexterity). —Richard Restak, MD. Mozart’s Brain and the Fighter Pilot. NY: Harmony Books, 2001.
- The most important function of exercise is to stimulate and cleanse the bodymind so that it is free to do its best work. You can enhance the benefits of your daily exercise by linking it to something you enjoy, such as listening to your favorite music on headphones while walking. —Candace Pert, PhD. Your Body is Your Subconscious Mind. (audiocassettes). CO: Sounds True.
Consider including aerobic, balance, stretching, and flexibility exercises. Muscle tissue weighs more than fat tissue, so loss of inches and the way your clothes fit may be better indicators than hopping on the scales every day and agonizing over each ounce.
5. Your Level of Micronutrition
Lack of appropriate micronutrition from a reduction in overall calories, or from eating non-nutritious food, or from an unbalanced intake can put the body out of whack and increase food cravings that can result in overeating or in the development of other unhealthy eating habits. A lack of needed micronutrients can damage the production of neurotrophins, brain food that is produced by healthy thinking cells (neurons) and that is required by all neurons for effective functioning.
Eat the most nutritious food possible, chew it thoroughly, eat slowly, and try to reduce overall calorie intake by about 10%. Eat at regular times. Ingest most of your calories earlier in the day and avoid snacking, especially in the evening or just before bedtime. Minimize your intake of sugar/simple carbohydrates. Since they tend to increase serotonin levels in the brain you may have been using them to self-medicate for mild depression. Get in the habit of reading labels. Avoid food that contain additives (especially those ending in “ate”), high fructose corn syrup, and artificial sweeteners.
Aim to give your digestive system at least 12 hours of rest and relaxation between the last meal of the day and the time you “break fast” the next morning. Yes, eat breakfast every morning! That was a tough one for me. One of my less-than-optimal weight-maintenance scams was to skip breakfast calories, until I discovered how unhelpful this pattern of eating was for my brain. Now I can tell a difference in increased mental alertness and reduced onset of fatigue after having eaten a nutritious breakfast versus skipping that meal.
Here are references from three authors:
- Breakfast increases blood sugar levels and leads to greater mental clarity during the day. Elementary school students showed improved academic performance and behavior when they ate breakfast. Adults who eat breakfast maintain higher blood sugar levels, quicker recall, and better overall memory performance than those who skip it. —Gary Small, M.D. The Memory Bible. NY: Hyperion, 2002
- Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Eating breakfast ensures that there is an abundance of energy at the very beginning of the day to help prevent negative physiologic effects that might occur if you become stressed. —Jon D. Kaiser, MD. Immune Power. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
- Eating breakfast can boost brain function. Students who ate breakfast had 40% higher math grades, were half as likely to be depressed, and were less likely to exhibit hyperactive behaviors. —Jean Carper. Your Miracle Brain. NY: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2000.
Become familiar with the glycemic index of foods (e.g., The New Glucose Revolution Pocket Guide to Losing Weight by Jennie Brand-Miller and coauthors). For example, sweet potatoes are a great substitute for other starches such as rice, potatoes, and corn. Learn to recognize good fat over bad fat and good carbs over bad carbs.
Pay attention to the calories, but also identify foods that are high in nutritional content and low on the glycemic index. Consider the benefits of taking a green super-food supplement (e.g., green barley grass, green wheat grass, green kamut) on a daily basis. My personal choice is EnerPrime™.
6. Your Emotions and Feelings
Many individuals try to manage their emotions and feelings (e.g., anger, fear, sadness, worry, anxiety) using techniques based on attitudes and beliefs they absorbed prior to the age of five. While these techniques may have helped them survive in childhood, they may be relatively unhelpful in adulthood.
You might take a lesson from Winston Churchill who is reported to have lamented on his deathbed, “I had a lot of troubles in my life—most of which never happened.” It can also be helpful to understand the difference between emotions (physiological responses to sensory stimuli) and feelings (cognitive processing of the emotionally-charged situation). Know that while you aren’t responsible for every emotion that surfaces in your brain and body, you can have control over your feelings because you create them.
Do you confuse feelings with hunger pangs? Do you eat based on your feelings rather than on a need for food? One of my favorite cartoons shows a couple having a picnic lunch. The woman turns to the man and says, “I asked you what you were feeling. Hungry for some chicken is not a feeling.” Ah-ha.
Evaluate your level of self-worth and your boundaries. Take appropriate steps to create and maintain optimum self-esteem and to implement bona fide personal limits. If your self-eesteem and boundaries are appropriate and intact it is much easier to let blips on the screen of life just go on by and to stop taking everything personally.
Remember that for every period of exhaustion there is a corresponding period of depression. Notice how several of these strategies go together hand in glove? Live in balance, avoid exhaustion, and decrease your risk for depression. Learning to effectively manage your emotions and feelings can pay exponential dividends.
7. Your High-Level-Wellness Lifestyle
Develop and implement a high-level-wellness lifestyle. The more consistently you do this, the easier time you generally have managing your weight. When your life gets out of balance your brain can become fatigued and scream for relief. Most people try to respond by snacking on high fat/high sugar/fast food items, downing beverages that contain caffeine or alcohol, or becoming involved with self-medication (directly or indirectly) through an addictive substance or process. A similar scenario can result when you are performing tasks that are very energy-intensive for your brain or spending large amounts of time with high-maintenance people.
Here are some other things to consider:
- Do you obtain sufficient sleep on a regular basis or do you suffer from chronic sleep deprivation? This can drain vital force, accelerate the process of aging, and suppress both your immune system and brain function. There is an optimum level of sleep for your brain: not too much and not too little. Take responsibility for getting the amount of sleep that allows you to thrive.
- Do you take a dozen deep breaths every day of fresh, clean, pure air? Avoid breathing side-smoke from cigarettes, cigars, and pipes; avoid exercising next to busy streets and highways to reduce inhaling vehicle exhaust; change filters in your furnace/air conditioner on a regular basis. You may have been taught to stand straight, stick your chest out, and hold your abdomen in. That’s not the best position for deep breathing. Instead, learn to breathe using your abdominal muscles and try to increase your lung capacity.
- Are you an eldest or only child and don’t really know how to relax? All work and little play makes for deadly, dull, and dreary. The brain loves variety. Sometimes a change can be as good as a rest (e.g., mini-vacation, alternate activities, favorite hobbies, the Quieting Reflex developed by Dr. Herbert Benson, travel). Build opportunities for relaxation, play, and laughter into your schedule. Laughter stimulates the production of endorphins that, in turn, strengthen the body’s natural killer cells. Just changing the muscles of your face into a smile can trigger the release of brain chemicals that can help you to feel better.
- Are you taking medication? Some can increase weight gain (e.g., birth control pills). There may be other options available in some situations. Consulting with your physician or health-care practitioner can often make all the difference in the world in developing a sound plan to address your individualized challenges.
Your brain is as unique as your thumbprint. This means that there will always be individualized contributors such as hormone fluctuations that can result in water retention and cause your weight to balloon. And there are food allergies that can impact cravings and ultimately affect your weight. You may have inherited a tendency toward higher or lower metabolic rates. I used to joke that my family holds the west coast concession on obesity. For a while it appeared that I might be well on my way to joining that concession. But I have learned to deal effectively with some of my individualized contributors.
Some make excuses for their weight and say, “I can’t help it because of x, y, or z.” There are factors that can make it more difficult for some to maintain optimum weight.And yes, these factors can be slightly different for each person, but there are some commonalities. However, there is a huge difference between a factor over which you may have only partial control and an absolute mandate. I’ve heard people throw up their hands and say, “I can’t help this one factor, so there’s no point in working on any of the others!” Actually, the reverse is true. If there is a factor over which you have little or no control, all the more reason to become serious about working on the ones over which you can exercise partial or complete control.
In the final analysis, you make daily choices that move you toward or away from your optimum weight. It’s usually not about food anyway. It’s often about using food to self-medicate—to alter your neurochemistry and help you feel better. Remember that the first step in escaping from the diet trap is recognizing that you are in one. It’s high time to create and implement a balanced high-level-wellness lifestyle and get on with your life!