Can you train your brain to work with you to lose weight? Absolutely! With the new year fast approaching (or here), suddenly everyone is ready to get hooked on the latest diets trend to shed those extra holiday pounds. Apple cider vinegar during meals, eating raw foods, putting coconut oil on everything from side dishes to main courses…. but do any of these fads really work?
My resounding answer as a brain and cognitive scientist is “No!” And here’s why.
Maybe taking that shot of apple cider vinegar might lower your blood sugar a tad for a few hours, but it’s not a solution to help your weight-loss goals long-term. Fad diets are just that — fads that come and go. They tend to not stick or be sustainable with any real weight loss. In fact, if you google “fad diet” the first thing that pops up is a definition by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center stating, “A fad diet is a diet that promises quick weight loss through what is usually an unhealthy and unbalanced diet… Some fad diets claim that they make you lose fat, but it’s really water weight you’re losing.”
Which is why among the obese who try to lose weight, the failure rate is 99 percent. Literally, 99 percent do not succeed at getting slim.[i]
So how do you lose excess weight and keep it off for the long term?
The key lies in understanding how your brain is blocking you from dropping pounds and how to correct it. Consuming sugar and flour actually changes the brain, rewiring it to ensure that we will continue eating more and more of both. In other words, sugar and flour are highly addictive.
Thus the modern American diet, rife with flour and sugar, wires our brain to work against us. It hijacks our hormones and neurotransmitters, leaving us with insatiable hunger and overpowering cravings.
But we can rewire our brain to work for — not against — us, and achieve permanent weight loss.
Eliminate sugar and flour
They are as addictive and harmful to your brain as cocaine and other powdered drugs. I have found people who are addicted to sugar or flour do best by just avoiding it all together. And trust me, you get used to it and will actually enjoy not craving it anymore.
Eat regular meals
A steady schedule of three meals a day at regular meal times—breakfast, lunch, and dinner —trains the brain to eat the right things at the right times and to pass up the wrong things in between.
Eat the right quantities
Most adults no longer receive reliable signals from their brains to stop eating when they’ve had enough. Eating right-sized portions will revive those signals over time and help the pounds melt off.
Understand willpower – and work with it.
Willpower is a simple brain function – not something we can build or control. We use up our willpower throughout the day, which is why you might be able to make a better food choice for breakfast than for dinner. Instead of maxing out your willpower, go easy on yourself and save your reserves for making better food choices.
Skip the Gym (at first).
The other weight loss trend of hitting the gym hard at the beginning of the year could also do a nice job of derailing your weight loss plan. People might not like to hear that ramping up at the gym depletes your willpower even more and might lead you to making unhealthy food choices from being more hungry. It’s imperative to be successful with weight loss to let your body first adapt to my next recommendation, which is getting sugar and flour out of your system. So just at first, don’t go crazy at the gym. Try meditation or gentle yoga instead.
Gain strength from gratitude.
It’s been proven that giving thanks at mealtimes, helps you slow down and think about what your about to eat. This, in turn, can help you make smarter food choices, like adding a heap of veggies and staying away from the rolls… a tough task for many, but it can be done, especially if you’ve taken the time to understand your willpower and have essentially saved some up for the time of day you are most vulnerable.
Think food plan, not diet.
It’s important to have a program that expects you will run out of willpower daily—because you will—and still allows you to be successful . I’m not talking about a diet. I’m talking about a food plan that heals the brain, coupled with daily, ongoing support and systems that make weight-loss permanent.
Science has the information. It’s now our responsibility as researchers to provide it in the form of concrete solutions. Because no one should spend another minute feeling ashamed or mystified as to why they can’t lose weight, lost in a flood of confusing and contradictory information on how to eat, or suffer in a body that doesn’t feel good.
Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D.
is the New York Times bestselling author of Bright Line Eating: The Science of Living Happy, Thin and Free. An Adjunct Associate Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, Susan is an expert in the psychology of eating. She is President of the Institute for Sustainable Weight Loss and CEO of Bright Line Eating Solutions, a company dedicated to sharing the psychology and neuroscience of sustainable weight loss and helping people achieve it.
[i] Fildes, A., Charlton, J., Rudisill, C., Littlejohns, P., Prevost, A., & Gulliford, M. (2015). Probability of an obese person attaining normal body weight: Cohort study using electronic health records. American Journal of Public Health, 105(9), e54–e59. doi: 10.2105/