We are emotionally driven by food. Our brains are biologically driven to seek and devour high-calorie sugary and fatty foods. We have to learn how to control our eating habits or our eating habits will control us.
There are things you can do to help you counteract the parts of your brain that have you addicted to high calorie nutrient poor foods. But first, you’ve got to understand why the addiction developed in the first place.
Understanding your brain’s software
Calories = Survival. We have to eat to survive! Therefore, making the right decisions is extremely important.
The Brain on the Primitive Diet
The brain’s desire to binge on rich food is a genetic holdover from the days of hunter-gatherers. Given what scientists know today about our early ancestors, it makes sense that our brains are hardwired to fixate on high calorie foods. High calorie foods work like crack cocaine on the brain. They are like dope. They make us feel good.
It’s a survival mechanism. Eating as many calories as possible, whenever possible, allowed our ancestors to store excess calories as fat to survive lean times. That approach worked well for 2.4 million years, but today it’s making us sick and fat.
That’s because our brains haven’t evolved as fast as our food environment. The human brain has evolved over 2.5 million years. With the exception of the last 10,000 years, people only ate animals they could hunt and wild-plants they could gather. Imagine if you could only eat what you caught or picked! The variety of foods hunter-gatherers ate paled in comparison to the 40,000 different food items we can buy in the average big-box grocery store today. No ice cream or donuts for them!
And while we have easy access to food 24/7, drive-thru meals were not an option for hunter-gatherers. Not to mention, that hunting and gathering was hard work. Early humans expended a lot of calories acquiring their food, so they needed to eat high-calorie foods to offset the loss. The average hunter-gatherer got up to 60 percent of his calories from animal foods, such as muscle meat, fat, and organ meat, and the other 40 percent from plants.
That balance between protein and carbohydrates in the diet is where the problem lies, but it’s not what you think. Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap, but they are the single most important nutrient for long-term health and weight loss. But I’m not talking about ice cream and donuts. I’m talking about plant foods that more closely resemble what our ancestors ate.
Hunter-gatherers ate fruit, tubers, nuts and seeds. These are whole foods. They are full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and disease-and-weight busting colorful phytochemicals. They also take time to digest. Therefore, they have a null effect on insulin, which balances blood sugar and offers a steady energy state. Whole foods have all the right information and turn on all the right genes.
The Brain on the Modern Diet
The past 10,000 years saw the advent of both agriculture and industrialization. And, in the blink of an eye (by evolutionary standards), the human diet got turned upside down. Today, 60 percent of our calories come from things that hunter-gatherers wouldn’t even recognize as food. The bulk of those items – cereal grains,drinks full of sugar and artificial sweeteners, refined oils and dressings are simple carbohydrates. The primitive brain sees an endless supply of quick energy. Left unchecked, our bodies pay the price. The result is a two-fronted epidemic of metabolic syndrome, obesity, and diabetes in our country, what I call “diabesity.”
When you eat simple carbohydrates, whether as sugar or as starch, they pass almost instantaneously from the gut into the bloodstream. Within seconds, blood sugars start to rise. To counter the increase in sugar, the body releases insulin. Insulin is the key that unlocks the cells and allows sugar to enter. As sugar enters the cells, the amount of sugar in the blood declines and the body restores homeostasis. An abundance of sweet treats in the diet goads the body into releasing more and more insulin. Eventually, the cellular locks get worn down from overuse. Like a key that’s lost its teeth, insulin loses its ability to easily open the cellular door. The cells become numb to the effects of insulin. As a result, the body pumps out more and more of the hormone to keep its blood sugar levels in check. Eventually, this cycle leads to a dangerous condition called insulin resistance. Insulin resistance, at the root of diabesity, causes you to gain belly fat, raises your blood pressure, messes up your cholesterol balance, makes you infertile, kills your sex drive, makes you depressed, tired, and demented, and even causes cancer.
Luckily there are ways to rewire the addicted parts of your brain by making good food choices.
Here are 3 ways to get started:
1. Balance out your blood sugar.
Blood sugar highs and lows drive food cravings. If you get famished between meals, that’s a sign that your blood sugar is crashing. When blood sugar is low, you’ll eat anything. To better balance blood sugar, eat a small meal or snack that includes clean protein, like nuts and seeds, every 3 to 4 hours or in between meals.
2. Eliminate liquid calories and artificial sweeteners.
Early humans didn’t reach for soda or fruit juices when they got thirsty. Sodas are full of chemicals and high fructose corn syrup. Processed fruit juices are piled full of added sugar. Try sticking with water and decaf coffee and green tea. Green tea contains plant chemicals that are good for your health. And, last but not least, don’t succumb to the diet-drink trap. The artificial sweeteners in diet drinks fool the body into thinking it is ingesting sugar, which creates the same insulin spike as regular sugar.
3. Eat a high-quality protein at breakfast.
Ideally, you’re eating quality protein at every meal, but, if you need to prioritize one meal, choose breakfast. Studies show that waking up to a healthy protein, such as eggs, nuts, seeds, nut butters help people lose weight, minimize cravings and burn calories.
Ultimately, you may not control your genes, but you do control what and how you eat! The most powerful tool you have to transform your health is your fork! It is the most important medical decision you will make every day. Use it well and you will be living in health. You will also break the strongholds of addiction.
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