Can't Stop Snacking? A Cognitive Scientist Explains How To Rewire Your Brain

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If you're one of the millions and millions of people who have tried every "diet," made multiple attempts each year to slim down, or succeeded in losing weight only to regain it again, you may be convinced that the problem is you.

As a brain and cognitive scientist, I can tell you that emerging research proves the real problem is that the foods we consume today, and the way we consume them, quickly trigger changes in the brain that ultimately block weight loss by creating insatiable hunger and overpowering cravings.

The main culprits are flour and sugar, which are now in nearly everything we eat. They affect our hormones and neurotransmitters, and actually change our brains, rewiring them to ensure that we will continue eating more and more of both. Therein lies the propensity for addiction.

All too often, the knee-jerk approach to weight loss is to try the latest fad diet or hit the gym. But neither of these tactics takes into account how the brain has been rewired to block weight loss. There is a way to heal the brain, though, ending food addiction and the vicious weight-loss-blocking cycle for good. Here are four guidelines:

1. Eliminate sugar and flour.

Flour and sugar are as addictive in your brain as cocaine and other powdered drugs. In the quantities we consume them, I'm talking about hundreds of calories in coffee drinks and doughnuts in every break room, they overstimulate the brain's nucleus accumbens—its seat of pleasure, reward, and motivation. To protect itself, the nucleus accumbens down-regulates by turning off some pleasure receptors so it won't be bombarded as hard the next time. Thus, you need increasingly larger doses to experience the same level of pleasure. That's what addiction looks like in the brain.

Flour and sugar also cause insulin levels to rise, which not only puts you at risk for type 2 diabetes, but elevated insulin in the bloodstream blocks the brain from recognizing the hormone leptin, which signals that we're full. Without leptin able to do its job you can go from dinner to the couch with a bag of chips, followed by a carton of ice cream, and still go to bed feeling unsatisfied.

Healing begins when sugar and flour are taken out of the equation. Not only does excess weight come off, but the insatiable hunger ends.

2. Eat regular meals.

When regular meals become part of the scaffolding of your life, it takes the burden off of willpower. A schedule of eating three meals a day at consistent times—breakfast, lunch, and dinner—not only helps eating the right things become automatic but also passing up the wrong things in between.

Eating regular meals also lengthens the body's fasting window, which increases fat loss, improves insulin sensitivity, and sharpens the mind, too.

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3. Eat the right quantities.

The majority of adults no longer receive reliable signals to stop eating from their brains and are no longer able to compensate for the extra calories they've consumed. And very few of us are able to eyeball portions correctly, which can result in slow and steady weight gain or can negate any weight loss.

Eating nourishing, filling, right-sized portions will revive the signals telling you to stop eating and over time will help you lose any excess weight and, most importantly, feel freed from food addiction.

4. Be consistent.

Like a drug rehab program, make these "Bright Lines" nonnegotiable. Doing so will take the burden off willpower, reinforcing your desire to make better choices and eventually repattern the sneaky brain pathway that leads to "just one more little bite."

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