Imagine never dieting again. Boosting brain health through food choices.

Here is the short form from the Body and Soul magazine today. There is an extract following this article that is from my upcoming book. Make Brain Health Your Business. Please let me know if you are interested in learning more.

Imagine what it would feel like to know that you will never go on another diet or continue body shaming? If only you had a healthier brain. One step toward having a healthier brain is becoming aware of the amount of sugar you are eating and drinking. It was quite shocking when I realised how much sugar I used to consume. It was not simple to stop having sugar in the diet straight away because research studies have shown that sugar has powerful addictive properties and effects the impulse centres of the brain. Sugar can not only substitute for addictive drugs, similarly to nicotine for instance, but can appear to be more rewarding.

When we start a diet, most of us feel purposeful and enthusiastic, ready to create a new relationship with food. You might feel truly inspired by a new diet program or weight loss book or exercise program. You may be wondering why your brain quickly gets in the way, return to old habits of thinking and living, and your relationship to food and exercise remain the same. For long-term success, we also need to understand how stress impacts how the brain works in a way that leads us to choosing sugar or alcohol or other high fat containing foods.

At the start of a new year, my husband and I walked into our local fishmonger in Mooloolaba, to our favourite salesperson, she calls herself Basic Tracey, we think she is fantastic. Greeting us with her normal beautiful smile, we exchanged Happy New Year greetings. Then, immediately after, she told us about her 3-week holiday, where she chilled out, drank some beer, and had a happy time. She quickly followed that up with:

“Now my hubby and I are back at work, feeling a bit low, so we went shopping, and

paid $500 for diet shakes to lose some weight. We did so well the first day, and after one day back at work, we were walking home, and looked each other and said, let’s stop and have a beer at the pub. Oh well, there is always tomorrow.”

Does this sound familiar? But whatever our reasons, we are not alone in our attempts to lose weight. Some people do benefit from products and programs, but in most cases the weight eventually comes back. There are many reasons that it is hard to maintain our weight loss over the long term. Some have to do with genetics, that is the genes we inherited, others to do with experiences, such as how we grew up and the type of foods we were given, and how much exercise we did. We cannot change our genes or the experiences we had up until this point in our lives.

If you’re like me and most people, you have tried several diets, and have had a hard time sticking to them, or keeping the weight off. If you know how your body works, you probably know there are four things you need to do to lose weight---and keep it off:

· Moderate your food intake

· Increase your physical activity

· Sleep more

· Manage stress to stop the cycle of emotional eating for comfort, calming and escape (and get treatment for depression, if necessary).

We all rationally understand that to keep weight off we need to eat less, sleep more, make time for exercise, and get a grip on our stress. But it is not enough to know rationally what we need to do. There are many reasons to want to lose weight. Some of them are good - we want to be healthier – and being overweight is often associated with increased risk of chronic diseases such as hypertension, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, depression, chronic fatigue, sleep apnea and some forms of cancer. Some are more complicated and involve feeling pressure to fit the cultural ideals of beautiful, which in our western world means skinny. Or we’ve been telling ourselves so long that we will be happy if we can just drop a few kilos, that we believe it.

Like many, I related to Tracey. For decades of my life, I was on and off diets, and putting weight back on between diets. The one diet that left an indelible mark on my brain, was the complete hip and thigh diet by Rosemary Conley. This was the first diet book I took seriously, and it popped out at me, while I was combing through a second-hand book shop in Canberra, in 1996. The book lay languishing in the bargain bin box with a flashy blue cover with a smiling lady with a flat stomach, and it honed into my biggest problems, so I believed, my hip and thighs. It lured me to buy it. I was in my late 20’s and had started a neuroscience research fellowship at Australian National University.

After a few weeks of mainly eating nothing but rice and vegetables, until it was not possible to do it anymore, ice-cream and steak re-entered my diet. Having lost a couple of kilos, while on the diet, although not sure if it came off the hips and thighs, the weight slowly crept back on. But while The Hip and Thigh Diet had longevity as far as fad diets go, there has not been a shred of evidence to show that going on a low-fat diet leads to any measurable losses in hips and thighs. The “calories in versus calories out” model is based on the idea that to maintain a stable weight, the number of calories you eat needs to match the number you expend. “Calories in” refers to the calories you get from the foods you eat, while “calories out” is the number of calories you burn. This would be good, but different foods impact how we feel, our metabolism, hormones, and this is not related to their calorie count. Not all calories are the same.

But this was the start of my body shaming and see-saw diets, before having children, a stressful career, worry about money, and moving countries. Little did I know when I started the hip and thigh diet, that low fat food was low fat because they put sugar into the products instead. I certainly had no idea at that time, that sugar has a profound effect on the brain and the body.

What we eat, our body shape and metabolism and how we handle stress are inherited

No matter who you are, where you were born, or how you grew up, you have one thing in common with everyone else, you started life with a ticket in the genetic lottery. Your brain is governed by your inherited genetic code (genetics) and the way it grows and is shaped over time by your environment and life experiences (epigenetics). There is emerging and significant evidence mounting that as far back as 3 generations ago, we may have been handed, some genes, that make us more susceptible to over and undereating.

Childhood stress, over many generations, affects the developing brain, and our metabolism is one of the leading causes of weight gain and obesity. Extensive research beginning early in the 1990s has directly linked childhood stress with many problems later in life. This research, since replicated around the world, is referred to as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study ( Adverse childhood experiences have been shown to affect the development of the brain, thus increasing susceptibility to overeating, drinking alcohol, and/or experiencing depression and anxiety later in life.

Research studies stumbled upon this surprising observation while conducting a weight-loss study that began in 1985. Those who were most successful in losing weight all started to drop out of the study. When asked why, they usually said that they felt more attractive and didn’t need to continue. It’s likely that the memories and stress that had caused the weight gain resurfaced, and they didn’t want to address any underlying issues or memories. ACEs are one of today’s greatest and most hidden public health crises. Because these unhealthy responses to early life events often appear years or even decades later, they are rarely connected. What the researchers were able to show is that the larger number of adverse experiences a child has, the greater the chances that he or she will become overweight or obese. As the ACE score went up, so did the body mass index (BMI).

We learn and develop tastes for food and drink at a young age and copy our families and society. The type of foods we eat have been nutritionally worsening and the portion sizes of meals and drinks have been increasing, for many decades.

Stress, worry, anxiety and depression, and not enough sleep, can make us even more vulnerable to triggers and cravings, causing us to make unhealthy choices. When we have difficulty recovering from sudden or traumatic events (such as losing a loved one, relationship difficulties, losing a job or a serious medical problem) we unknowingly begin eating too much of the wrong foods or forgoing exercise.

Because our brain does not like too much stress, and when we don’t take care of stress, it is harder to resist a moist piece of cake, a gooey French cheese, a (good) glass of cabernet sauvignon, after a hard day at work. The moment we see or smell or even think about it, we automatically recall the script that says Instant pleasure---must have it now! Or we will tie the food to a pleasant memory. As you can see, the problem with weight gain and loss is far greater than the individual eating too much and not moving enough.

Understand why we reach for high fat and sugary foods to relieve stress

The way I unknowingly handled stress was by eating sugary and fatty foods, as each stress landed in my body. Therefore, as a new stressor was added, like having children, moving countries, running a lab, having a career, paying the bills, it was like a slowly boiling frog. Outside of my perception, and only with increases in dress sizes and changing the choice of clothes I wore, the seminal moment occurred in a retail store, in a fitting room. Around 47 yrs old, when I could not fit into any of the clothes in the store, it became crystal clear, and I started crying. Little did I realise at that time, it was my brain that was the problem, I wasn’t managing my stress and unknowingly, I was medicating my stress with food, alcohol, and sugar.