We’ve all spent days (or decades!) overthinking our food intake — reminding ourselves to eat this way or that way. But despite our effort, we still end up falling off the weight-loss wagon. Yet for our naturally slim friends, maintaining a slim waistline and staying on track when tempted by treats seems to be a no-brainer. What are we missing?
Neuroscientist Cassandra Lowe, PhD, led research in Canada focusing on the link between weight and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area of the brain known to govern decision making (impulse control) and now suspected to play a role in judging food portion sizes. Her finding: “People who have less prefrontal cortex activity are predisposed to overeating.” Why that’s a problem: A sluggish PFC can cause us to misestimate portions and put on pounds, but weight gain also dulls activity in this region, leading to even more pounds stacking up.
“It can be very hard for people with an inactive prefrontal cortex to adhere to a weight-loss plan,” says renowned neuropsychiatrist Daniel Amen, MD. “Most weight problems occur between the ears, which may explain why most diets don’t work and why, after a decade of gastric banding, the success rate is a disappointing 31 percent.”
As we age, the brain’s ability to control slimming falters. Dr. Lowe says, “Cognitive processes linked to the PFC decline starting at 30.” What’s more: “We know that brain activity diminishes as BMI goes up,” says Dr. Amen. “Considering 72 percent of the population is overweight, there’s a lot of us struggling unknowingly with PFC deficiencies.”
Adding to our weight frustration: portion distortion. Studies show that portion sizes in chain restaurants have ballooned by as much as 60 percent in recent years, training us to think our meals should be larger than necessary. Most of us now underestimate portions by about 20 percent, and overweight people are 40 percent less accurate at estimating the calories of big meals, according to research by Stanford-trained food scientist Brian Wansink, PhD. This restaurant trend contributes to portion inflation when we serve ourselves at home, causing extra pounds to pile on. Dr. Amen notes, “Culturally, our society is not helping our weight.”
The good news: You can reboot your brain! Indeed, strengthening the PFC — through nutrition, movement, and mindfulness — works like “gastric bypass on the brain,” says Dr. Amen. And since the PFC functions like a natural portion controller, this type of subconscious weight management happens w ith zero deprivation.
One of the easiest ways to activate your brain’s slimming region is to eat protein-rich mini meals throughout the day, says Dr. Amen. Not only do small, steady doses of protein deliver feel-good dopamine, boosting the brain’s ability to make good decisions, they also melt fat — fast! In a 2013 study at New York’s Skidmore College, middle-aged folks who ate six protein-rich mini meals a day dropped 47 percent more body fat and 107 percent more belly fat than those eating three meals a day.
The benefits go beyond weight loss. “Strengthening the PFC, the brain’s ‘impulse brake,’ makes everything better! It can lead to better financial decisions, relationships and job success,” says Dr. Amen. It worked for Mary Jo Liccar, who got off cholesterol meds and dropped 109 pounds enjoying protein-packed, brain-healthy mini meals. Ready to start losing? Read on to “rewire” your brain for slim!
When you strengthen the brain’s prefrontal cortex (PFC) — the region responsible for impulse control and overeating — losing weight becomes much easier, says neuropsychiatrist Daniel Amen, MD, author of Change Your Brain, Change Your Life (Buy from Amazon, $12.69). On the flip side, when this region is sluggish, it can fuel overeating and weight gain, especially in our supersize food portion culture. Indeed, neuroscientists confirm that PFC activity is a noted difference in the brains of those struggling with unwanted pounds, compared to naturally thin folks. But Dr. Amen promises, “It’s never too late to train your brain to think like a healthy person.”
The key is getting all three macronutrients together, ensuring not to skimp on protein. Dr. Amen also advises limiting high-glycemic and low-fiber foods and choosing organic ingredients whenever possible, since added chemicals and toxins can damage the brain, hampering weight loss. In addition to these simple diet changes, you’ll incorporate a few easy strategies to strengthen the PFC to support weight loss and transform your health. Following this advice, even for a short time, can trigger positive permanent changes — including reversed diabetes and improved mental cognition, promises Dr. Amen. “One of the most important lessons we’ve learned through studies is that brain function can be improved when you put it in a healing environment.” To get rolling, try these strategies:
Use a slimming plate.
To start undoing the mental damage caused by inflated portions, reach a PFC (protein, fat, carbs) plate, which has printed sections outlining the ideal portions: 33 percent protein, 33 percent healthy fat, and 33 percent healthy carbs. The plate was created by health coach Renita Brannan, who led people in North Dakota to lose over 100,000 pounds. Brannan says, “Our first stage of learning is visual, so the repetition of eating on this plate lays down new neuropathways for success.”
Success indeed: “I have seen thousands of cases of diabetes reversed.” says Brannan. “Our study results were overwhelming disease reversal and incredible, permanent weight loss!”
Using this visual aid for four weeks helps retrain the brain to lock in on slimming, satisfying portions. (Buy one at PFCplate.com or simply draw the Y-shaped portion sections on a paper plate to create your own guide.) This tool gets a thumbs up from Dr. Amen. “I’m a fan of anything that helps people eat consciously!”
Stop hunger in its tracks.
When your PFC is sluggish, it’s easy to get distracted and grab food without thinking. “Strengthening this brain region can be the difference between effortlessly reaching for a banana instead of a banana split,” says Dr. Amen. An easy way to do so is with a study-proven 12-minute meditation called Kirtan Kriya. To do: Chant “saa,” “taa,” “naa,” “maa,” while touching your thumb to your second, then third, fourth and fifth fingers.
For a full sequence, do this for two minutes aloud, two minutes whispering, four minutes silently, two minutes whispering, and two minutes aloud. Try it daily for a month or two first thing in the morning. (If you prefer prayer, it activates the same brain area.) “It is so simple, yet so powerful,” says Dr. Amen. “We saw brain benefits on scans very quickly — the very next day — that grew stronger over eight weeks.”
Move for 20.
One of the best ways to improve brain activity is through physical exercise, says neuroscientist Cassandra Lowe, PhD, who has published three studies on the neuroprotective effects of movement and its ability to promote mental resilience in relation to food intake. “Research shows it doesn’t seem to matter what kind of exercise you do — as little as 20 minutes of brisk walking is enough to help boost the PFC!”
Try this cravings buster.
To outsmart impulse eating, Dr. Amen recommends supplementing with L-theanine, an amino acid in green tea that calms impulse anxiety without dimming mental focus. It also blocks the release of the stress-hormone cortisol, which triggers belly-fat storage. The ideal dose, according to a study conducted out of Japan: 200 milligrams. daily.
Focus on Zzzs.
Getting seven hours of sleep a night is proven to boost PFC activity, says Dr. Amen. “So make sleep a priority.” Dim the lights two hours before bed to spur the release of melatonin, which dims with age.