Our HUNGRY Brains.

If you’ve been following me for a time, you are likely familiar with my story; how I went from being a nightly, blackout drinker to being someone who values her health and now spends her life spreading the word to others.

In my work, I meet a lot of people who have struggled with their health, diet, weight, and self-acceptance. I receive requests regularly from people asking me for support, tips and strategies on getting healthy and ridding their lives of addiction and keeping the weight off. Many people have gone on and off diets for as long as they can remember, and I want to help people get off that train…for good.

Maybe you’re someone who has gone through something challenging in your life and found solace in food and now you need to get back on track. Or maybe you’ve quit your drug of choice and now find yourself using food and sugar to replace your other addiction.

Or maybe you are just sick and tired of feeling sick and tired.

No matter the reasons people come to me for help, by understanding how our brains actually work, we can gain a deeper understanding around the choices we make and we can develop strategies to work with them, rather than be ruled by them. If we aren’t happy with the results we are seeing in our lives, we need to look to the things we DO–our habits and rituals—and become increasingly aware of them. With awareness, comes the ability to change.

I can write about this so easily, because I have been there, too. Not only at a certain period in my life, but I can fall into habits that don’t serve me anytime I feel down on myself or anytime I just want to escape my feelings or anytime I allow myself to be pulled into temptation through the things I DO and through the things I DON’T do.

If I am feeling anxious or depressed or like a failure in any area of my life, I may want to soothe with sugar and the couch. On the other hand, if I am feeling proud of myself and like everything is just “working”, I find it easy to stick to my routine and stay in the zone.

But there is so much more to the story.

Through experience and research, what I have come to learn is how my brain affects my behaviours, my habits and my results.

In Stephan Guyenet’s powerful work, The Hungry Brain, he explains how ours brains are hardwired to seek out highly rewarding, calories-dense foods. He teaches us about the complexity of our brains in making choices. He covers the “reward system”, which is all about cravings. We have these cravings because the reward system has evolved over millennia as a way to lead us to calorie-dense foods that supported our survival. For example, visual cues (when we see commercials or pictures of high calorie, rewarding foods) trigger the release of dopamine in the brain and the motivation to eat the food (craving). But in today’s world, where calorie-dense food abounds, we have to work to modify our behaviour so that we don’t over-eat. The work is in making conscious choices that lead us to healthier foods rather than go with what our brains are pulling us to do (eat the sugar…you know you wannnnt it!!!)

He goes on to explain the “economic choice system”, where humans subconsciously weigh the costs and benefits of a food choice in order to get the best “deal”, where the primary cues are cost and convenience. For example, our ancestors would have weighed whether or not to spend the energy (calories) tracking a buffalo or whether they’d instead go for the bee hive and enjoy those calories from honey for minimal effort. In today’s world, we have to decide whether we will order the pastry at Starbucks or whether we will save our $3. We will rationalize our choice based on the stronger desire (for the food or for the money) and we do this without barely “thinking” about it.

He also explains the “lipostat”, located primarily in the hypothalamus, which non-consciously regulates adiposity (how much fat we carry) by influencing appetite, our responsiveness to seductive food cues, and our metabolic rate. Our lipostat has ONE job—to prevent our adiposity from decreasing. It is in large part due to our lipostat that we have a hard time losing weight and keeping it off long-term.

He also teaches us about the “satiety system”, which regulates food intake on a meal-to-meal basis by making us feel full and reducing our drive to continue eating after we’ve had enough. The satiety system takes its cues from the digestive tract, which relays how much volume we’ve eaten, and the protein and fibre content of our food. The satiety system also receives cues from the reward system which tends to shut down the feeling of satiety when we eat highly rewarding foods such as pizza, french fries and ice cream. And, it takes cues from the lipostat, which increases or decreases satiety (the feeling of fullness or satisfaction from food) to help maintain the stability of body fat stores (again, making it difficult to lose weight).

Guyenet writes, “One of the reasons why modern food tends to be so exceptionally fattening is that it doesn’t provide the cues the satiety system needs to appropriately regulate calorie intake. We tend to use the sensation of fullness as an intuitive signal that we’ve eaten enough, so when we eat calorie-dense, low-fibre, low-protein, highly palatable (junk) foods that provide little satiety per calorie, we overeat substantially without even realizing it.”

Ok, so we know we overeat and we know we struggle with junk food, but if our brains are fighting us so hard, how will we ever get control?

Well, as I always say, awareness is the first step. Now that we know how our brains actually work, we can DO things that will support our goals of living with more freedom around food. Because information is great, but what we’ve found is that information alone doesn’t target the primary brain circuits that are in charge of calorie intake. At the heart of the issue is the fact that food is integral for life. This is why I take a unique approach with my clients when it comes to alcohol or drug addiction combined with sugar or food addiction. While we can “simply” avoid substances that don’t serve us (and that are not necessary for survival), food is more complicated, as we’ve covered in several other posts on this blog.

Luckily, there are ways to “hack” the system, and I doubt any of these strategies will surprise you if you’ve been with me for any length of time. But it’s always worth the reminder, so let’s go through them together:

Setting Up For Success: When you open up your pantry and refrigerator, what do you see? Packages and cans and boxes and packets? Junk or snack foods, AKA “food-like products”? Or do you see FOOD? Things like fruits and veggies and meats, eggs, fish and whole grains? Creating a food environment that helps you reach your goals is half the battle. When we bring good food home, we eat good food. If you’ve made the choice not to eat junk, don’t bring it home. Honestly, this one seems too easy, but it’s true. If we can avoid the junk in the grocery stores or take-away restaurants, we won’t have the kinds of foods in our homes that we are trying to avoid.

My strategies for NOT coming home with a box of doughnuts or cookies or a burger and fries combo is to always leave the house prepared. If I am going grocery shopping, I go after I’ve eaten. If I am going to be out all day, I pack a cooler with healthy food options like a smoothie, fruit, nuts, hard boiled eggs, a salad, or some hummus & veggies.

Placing barriers around junk food helps make it easier to avoid. Try to avoid night time commercials as most of them are food-related. You may even combine another strategy (exercise) and avoid TV in the evenings altogether. Try keeping junk foods to one drawer or cupboard in your home (out of plain sight) until you can wean off entirely (which may be a goal for you). At work, don’t have a candy dish on your desk, where you can reach into it automatically. Setting yourself up for success means making it easier to eat the way you are choosing to eat, without as easily falling back into old habits.

Eat Food: I have talked about this one since the very beginning. Staying “one step ahead of my hunger” has served me incredibly well over the years and is a strategy I share with my clients as a non-negotiable. We can never, ever imagine that healthy food will suddenly appear. We must make it happen for ourselves or else we are at the mercy of our brains–brains that value foods that contain calorie-dense combinations of fat, sugar, salt and starch. By making sure we never get overly “starving”, we can avoid the automatic responses from our brains that will have us going through the drive-thru. Keep healthy snacks with you; bring your own lunch to work; pack for a road trip with lots of healthy options and make your food a priority.

Sleep: Restorative sleep plays a huge role in our behaviour, which is why getting a great night’s sleep affects our cravings profoundly. When we don’t sleep well or enough, it increases the reward system’s responsiveness to food cues, and often we end up eating more calories than we need. Here is a post I wrote on getting better sleep.

Stress: Stress is also a tremendous factor in the way we crave and behave, and our brains haven’t changed much since the threat was a sabre-toothed tiger…we just don’t tend to cope as effectively to the stressors of modern life as our ancestors did. When the stress hormone, cortisol, is elevated, we tend to overeat and accumulate body fat. Stress also shifts our eating preferences towards “comfort food”, which tends to be calorie dense and highly palatable because….it makes us feel better.

Protein: Eating protein can ward off cravings by helping us feel satiated for longer periods of time. Eating protein at breakfast has been shown to reduce cravings later in the day. It’s a powerhouse, and one of the easiest changes we can make that will yield impressive results. If your go-to breakfast is a bagel or cereal, try swapping out those refined carbs (sugar) for scrambled eggs or an easy smoothie using hemp hearts or Greek yogurt for protein. Here is a throwback from waaaay back where I share my fave smoothie recipe.

Exercise: Exercise can help lead us towards a healthy lifestyle because when we exercise, we burn calories. We also feel so good doing it! Our bodies were built to move, and the goal is to move every single day. Here is a post I wrote on moving our bodies more…not less (because we live in a society that makes it increasingly easy to move almost not at all!).

Understanding how our brains work goes a long way towards creating the lifestyle we want to live. I hope these tips have inspired you to remember that while our brains may make it a challenge at times–because of the insane food environment we currently live in–we still do have the power to create lasting change in our lives if we want it badly enough and if we are ready to do the work required to see it through. There are no “quick fixes” or easy buttons or pills or potions or powders that can do this work for us.

It’s up to us…and those hungry brains.

So, feed them well.

Because I want you to love your life one bite at a time.

P.S. Do YOU struggle with creating a lifestyle you love? Want to work with someone who’s been there? Check out my Coaching Program here.

P.P.S. Want more tips to live a healthy lifestyle? Then I hope you’ll sign up to my 14 Days of Wellness! Simply enter your name and email address to begin receiving positive daily intentions around your mental and physical health. It’s FREE, with no diets, products, challenges or catches…just a chance to remember how amazing your brain–and body is–for 14 days.

P.P.P.S. Speaking of brains and bodies, we’re back for YEAR 2 of The Healthy Brain and Body Show! We have made it special just for YOU and we’ve got the best of the best in Ottawa sharing their products and wisdom and knowledge, and Roger and I would be thrilled to host you! If you, or someone you love, lives in the Ottawa area, we invite you to The Healthy Brain and Body Show at The EY Centre on April 21 & 22. From gourmet food sampling and natural products to help you live your BEST life, to yoga and spinning and singing bowls inside the Zen Zone, there is something for everyBODY at the show!  We can’t wait to explore, connect, learn and shop at the show WITH you! It’s EARTH DAY weekend, so please bring your reusable shopping bags and water bottle as we’ve hired Aquahaulics to provide you with fresh, clean water all weekend long! And please say hello if you come. Roger and I will both be there the entire weekend. It would be a thrill to meet you. 🙂

Don’t forget to check out the Facebook event page to win SHOW BUCKS (fun money to spend AT the show!)

P.P.P.S. Let’s be friends! I’d love to connect on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram. Plus, if you haven’t already subscribed to my blog, you should! That way, you won’t miss anything. Plus, as a thank you for joining, you will receive my 14 Days of Wellness. https://sarahtalksfood.com/

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