Amanda Brown knows what it’s like to feel helpless. As recently as last year, her life was ruled by food cravings. “I would plan to have a square of chocolate or a scoop of ice cream, but I’d keep going back for more,” shares the 43-year-old. “Some nights, I’d finish off a pint of ice cream!”
Like many of us, Amanda was convinced her problem was a failure of willpower. But weight-loss expert Mike Dow, Psy.D., author of The Sugar Brain Fix ($12.07, Amazon), says that’s just not true. He blames a physiological reason women like Amanda feel powerless when cravings strike. The problem: Modern processed foods are designed to chemically hijack the brain.
According to researchers at Harvard University, when we eat highly processed foods like a candy bar, the brain releases a rush of serotonin, a feel-good brain chemical, and dopamine, an energizing brain chemical, creating a powerful natural high. “Just like cocaine prompts the brain to release serotonin and dopamine, sugar and bad fats do too,” explains Dr. Dow. “This feels good, so we try to re-create the pleasure by eating more. And with nonstop access to highly palatable foods, it’s easy to become addicted to the rush.” Food companies know this, so they create foods formulated to release this rush.
Making matters worse: Over time, you need to eat more and sweeter foods to get the same results. “The brain gets acclimated to the through-the-roof sweetness, and the body quickly develops a tolerance for these brain chemicals,” explains Pamela Peeke, M.D., an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland. Findings from the Scripps Research Institute in Florida reveal this pattern causes calorie intake to soar, doubling weight gain.
When you try to eliminate processed foods, the brain goes into a kind of withdrawal. “You inevitably go back to eating unhealthy foods because you feel terrible,” says Dr. Dow. “Your brain doesn’t know how to produce serotonin and dopamine in a healthy way anymore, and it needs those brain chemicals to feel good.”
Fortunately, Dr. Dow developed a plan that teaches the body to make serotonin and dopamine without processed foods, and let go of stubborn pounds. The four-week plan combines the study-proven Mediterranean diet with components from the keto diet.
“The Mediterranean diet is packed with foods that support healthy brain chemistry, while the keto diet promotes rapid weight loss,” he explains. “By encouraging mild ketosis on top of the Mediterranean framework, you have a winning combination for normalizing brain chemicals and shedding fat.” In fact, scientists at Brookhaven National Lab found that as serotonin and dopamine levels normalize, women end up with a BMI 30 percent lower than those without stable levels.
Best of all, Dr. Dow’s plan ends cravings without deprivation. “During the first two weeks, you can still enjoy your favorite foods,” he promises. This helps you avoid the feeling of withdrawal that makes dieting difficult. “Shifting to a mostly healthy diet is all it takes.” As you naturally boost serotonin and dopamine, your taste buds will recalibrate so you begin to prefer healthier foods.
Effortless weight loss is just the beginning! Women like Amanda Brown who follow Dr. Dow’s plan report that foggy thinking, joint pain and depression disappear. “The first thing women feel is that brain fog lifts,” says Dr. Peeke. “The second thing is energy-they get so much energy, they can’t even believe it.” Ready to start your transformation? Read on!
Incorporating a few healthy indulgences helps retrain the brain to naturally manufacture feel-good serotonin and dopamine —and they come with weight-loss benefits too!
The unsaturated fats in olive oil improve blood flow to the brain region that produces serotonin and dopamine. Plus, this healthy fat has been shown to prod cells to increase the production of metabolism-boosting hormones by 60 percent. To get the benefits, drizzle 2 Tbs. over salads or cooked vegetables.
Powerful antioxidants in red wine boost the production of an anti-aging hormone that speeds the repair of brain neurons, helping ensure healthy levels of serotonin and dopamine. Plus, Australian researchers say alcohol reduces fat-packing blood-sugar swings by 37 percent. For best results, opt for a dark, dry red with less than 1 gram of sugar per ounce, such as merlot or cabernet.
Enjoying two ounces of dark chocolate daily encourages the healthy production of serotonin and dopamine. Bonus: The treat is loaded with magnesium, which lowers levels of fat-storage hormones. To get the perks, select chocolate containing at least 85 percent cocoa.
Phase One: Retrain your brain.
“It takes two weeks for the body to relearn how to naturally manufacture feel-good brain chemicals,” Dr. Dow asserts. “You can’t deprive yourself of them before the brain is able to do that.” That’s why you won’t eliminate any foods in Phase One.
Instead, you’ll add Mediterranean staples, including seven daily servings of fruit and veggies and at least one serving of omega-3-rich foods (like wild salmon or chia seeds) to your diet along with at least one of Dr. Dow’s Craving Crushers (below) at each meal. These foods provide nutrients the body needs to produce dopamine and serotonin, and they’re loaded with healthy fats and antioxidants that are key to both Mediterranean and ketogenic diets.
“Keto diets are effective because they starve the body of sugar, forcing it to burn fat for fuel,” says Dr.
Dow. That’s why you’ll replace one breakfast each week with 16 oz. of bone broth or a mug of keto coffee (16 oz. coffee with 1 Tbs. cream and 1 Tbs. coconut oil). “This keto-inspired trick helps you get similar results without giving up carbs.” Finally, you’ll work two Boosting Strategies (at right) into your day to maximize the production of serotonin and dopamine.
Phase Two: Power off the pounds.
During the third and fourth week, you’ll limit processed foods, dairy and grains to no more than three 300-calorie servings per day, while loading up on keto-friendly healthy fats, like avocados, olive oil, and nuts, which trigger the body to burn fat for fuel. You’ll also continue to eat seven servings of fruit and veggies as well as omega-3-rich foods and Craving Crushers (at left). In addition, you’ll replace three breakfasts each week with bone broth or keto coffee and use three Boosting Strategies (below) daily.
You can stay in Phase Two as long as you’d like. “You can live these principles for the rest of your life,” Dr. Dow says. “After four weeks, your brain chemicals will be recalibrated and your cravings will subside. So it will be easier to make healthy food decisions.”