I’m a food addict. We all are. Our brains are biologically driven to seek and devour high-calorie, fatty foods. The difference is that I have learned how to control those primitive parts of my brain. Anyone can do this if they know how, but before you can update your brain’s biological software to counteract the cravings for high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods, you’ve got to understand why those food urges developed in the first place.
Calories = Survival
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. It’s a survival mechanism. Eating as many calories as possible, whenever possible, allowed our ancestors to store excess calories as fat and 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 evolved over 2.5 million years. And, 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 cinnamon buns for them!
And whereas 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 lots 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 bagels and donuts. I’m talking about plant foods that more closely resemble what our ancestors ate. Hunter-gatherers ate fruit, tubers, seeds and nuts. 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 raise blood sugar slowly, which balances metabolism and offers a steady stream of energy. Whole foods have all the right information and turn on all the right genes.
But 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, sugary drinks, refined oils and dressings—are simple carbohydrates. The primitive brain sees an endless supply of easy energy. Left unchecked, our bodies pay the price. The result is a two-fronted epidemic of obesity and diabetes in our country—what I call “diabesity.”
The Blood Sugar Cascade
When you eat simple carbohydrates, as sugar or as starch, they pass almost instantaneously from the gut into the bloodstream. Within seconds, blood sugar levels 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 simple sugars 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, makes you infertile, kills your sex drive, makes you depressed, tired and demented, and even causes cancer.
3 Ways to Reprogram your Brain
Luckily there are ways to rewire the primitive parts of your brain by making good food choices. Here are 3 ways to get started.
1. Balance blood sugar.
Blood sugar highs and lows drive primitive 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 healthy protein, like seeds or nuts, every 3 to 4 hours.
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 awash in sugar. Try sticking with water 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 or a protein shake help people lose weight, reduce cravings and burn calories.
Ultimately, you may not control your genes, but you do control what and how you eat. Since taking control and changing my diet, my brain no longer caves into the cravings and urgings that seduce the reptilian brain. The most powerful tool you have to transform your health is your fork! Use it well and you will thrive.