Updated: Apr 3
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.
You can also ready read the article here.
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 (www.acestudy.org). 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.
Little did I know that the sugar industry foundation was very successful in increasing America’s and then the worlds per capita sugar consumption by a third. Historically, average sugar consumption per capita reached an all-time high of 20.4 kg in 2018 compared to all time low of 14.5 kg in 1961.
The amount of soda, or sugar-sweetened beverages, that we drink, for instance, has increased fivefold since 1950. But sugar isn’t found in only the obvious places, like donuts, cupcakes, and soda. Sugar is embedded in the food chain. 75 percent of all foods and beverages contain sugar. There are many resources you can read to understand more about the toxic effects of excess sugar on the brain and body.
If only I knew back in 1996, that I was like millions of other people, that believed that eating fats made you fat. It has turned out that the fat-free era made people heavier. How did that happen? An investigation and research drawn from internal documents show that an industry group called the Sugar Research Foundation (SRF) wanted to "refute" concerns about sugar's possible role in heart disease. The SRF then sponsored research by Harvard scientists that did just that. The result was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1967, with no disclosure of the sugar industry funding.
“The sugar-funded project in question was a literature review, examining a variety of studies and experiments. It suggested there were major problems with all the studies that implicated sugar, and concluded that cutting fat out of American diets was the best way to address coronary heart disease. The authors of the new article say that for the past five decades, the sugar industry has been attempting to influence the scientific debate over the relative risks of sugar and fat.
"It was a very smart thing the sugar industry did, because review papers, especially if you get them published in a very prominent journal, tend to shape the overall scientific discussion," co-author Stanton Glantz told The New York Times”. In 1954, the researchers note, the president of the SRF gave a speech describing a great business opportunity. If Americans could be persuaded to eat a lower-fat diet — for the sake of their health — they would need to replace that fat with something else. America's per capita sugar consumption could go up by a third.”
At that moment I wanted to start another diet, the only thing flooding my mind was “you are what you eat and drink” , how hopeless I was. I felt weak and questioned why I let this happen. The dread of trying to start another diet or exercise program. It had to be that I was not exercising enough. So, I started walking and then running on a treadmill. To provide a goal, I signed up to do my first marathon. Thinking that signing up for the Silverado trail marathon that traverses vineyards that run across an expansive valley through Napa Valley was a good idea, as I had incorrectly overheard that it was mainly downhill from my mate who is an expert runner.
After one training run, I was sweating all over the kitchen bench, after swallowing water and taking a few cliff bars along the way. I opened the fridge and grab my favourite reward for doing hard work, corn chips and pesto dip. My mouth waters just thinking about good it made me feel in the moments I was eating them. At the same time, a curious thought wandered through my mind: “I need to lose weight. Why is it that I am running at least 3 times a week, and a long run on the week-ends, but finding it impossible to lose weight?”
Then the thought immediately diverged to: “where are the kids, the results for the experiments needed for the grant going in, must meet with the students, forgot to pay the bill, should we live in Brisbane or Berkeley….” At about this time, my research laboratory was doing research on alcohol addiction, and had discovered, through serendipity, that sugar, was as addictive as alcohol and nicotine.
Sugar is addictive
The more sugar you have, the more you want. Our research had long focused on alcohol addiction and its effect on the brain. When we turned our attention to the effects of sugar on the brain, it was initially as a control for our experiments with alcohol—until the day my collaborator, an expert in nicotinic receptors, called me, aghast, and said, “Can you believe this? Sugar is having the same effect on the brain as alcohol and nicotine.” Sugar, we discovered, is as addictive as nicotine, one of the most addictive drugs in the world. We spent the next five years mapping, verifying, and replicating that discovery before confirming it and publishing a series of papers on the topic. The shocking finding was that sugar disrupts the brain pathways in the same way as alcohol and nicotine. Sugar activates a neurotransmitter that activates the nicotinic receptors, the receptors that nicotine binds to. And by the way, artificial sweeteners are as addictive as sugar.
Sugar is the perfect ingredient; its empty calories leave people hungry. Sugar keeps us wanting more, eating more, and most importantly, spending more. Every day, people eat breakfast foods that are basically desserts. They have soda with lunch and dinner. They have an actual dessert after dinner, and then, a midnight snack. And they do it all without ever seeing sugar as the common thread between all those behaviours. We must be careful about our “bliss point” products. Extensive work went into determining the “bliss point” for products that create "that sensory profile where you like food the most. This illustrious and pioneering work on the bliss point was carried out by American market research and psychophysicist Howard Moskowitz, known for his successful work in product creation and optimization for foods ranging from spaghetti sauce to soft drinks.
Moskovitz describes the bliss point for salt, sugar, or fat to be in a range within which our perception is that there is neither too much nor too little, but the "just right" amount of saltiness, sweetness, or richness. The human body has evolved to favour foods delivering these tastes: the brain responds with a "reward" in the form of a jolt of endorphins, remembers what we did to get that reward, and makes us want to do it again. This is an effect run by dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Combinations of sugar, fat, and salt act together and are more rewarding than any one alone. The perfect product includes two or three of these nutrients at their bliss point. The bliss point in products makes it hard to stop eating them and why it takes time to reduce them in our diets.
Craving more sugar and giving in to that urge, of course, leads to further weight gain. Studies conducted with obese adolescents indicate that they had reduced executive function, or impulse control, compared with adolescents of normal weight. Brain-imaging studies showed that these teens had less connectivity between the prefrontal cortex (the impulse-control centre) and the reward centres of the brain.
Then comes the next challenge with the very word ‘diet’---it tells your brain it is going to be deprived . The most primitive part of our brains evolved when food was scarce, and the priority was to seek and store as much as possible. Today, our brains are still hardwired to consume whatever food is available, even though we are constantly bombarded by endless snack options and supersized meals. Faced with such abundant and delicious options, it’s difficult for the modern brain to resist. Your brain isn’t a bad guy, not trying to make it hard, it’s just a machine. Unfortunately, our brain has been hardwired to process stress more than happiness, and they become obstacles to losing weight and having our healthiest body. These are habits and patterns hardwired into us that immediately work against us, making it difficult to succeed.
When we’re stuck in unhealthy habits, it can be tempting to reach for a quick fix. In the short term, medication, alcohol, and sugar can temporarily distract us from our stress.However, there is one step to try today toward being healthier and that is becoming aware of the amount of sugar you are eating and drinking. It was quite shocking when I realized how much sugar I used to consume. It was not simple to stop having sugar in the diet straight away. The best way to get started is to remove one sugary food or drink item at a time. For example, I started with after dinner chocolates for a week, and then after mastering this, moved to take out the trail mix after a stressful meeting at work. Because eating sugary and fatty foods relieves the feelings of stress, it is important to think about what to replace sugary foods and drinks with as in my case, I turned to raw nuts, not roasted, or salted, instead.
Sugar makes us eat more, not less
Sucrose, or table sugar, is the basic sugar we all know and love. Sucrose = fructose + glucose. That is, sucrose breaks down into fructose and glucose, which have the same number of calories but affect the body in completely different ways. Glucose, also known as blood sugar, is the key source of energy for our bodies and brains. It’s either used immediately or, as glycogen, is stored in muscle cells or the liver for later use. Insulin, an important hormone, regulates blood sugar—for one thing, it lets the brain know that you’re full and can stop eating. Insulin is secreted when your glucose levels are elevated. Insulin is what facilitates the entry of glucose into your liver and muscle cells. Fructose is found naturally in many fruits and vegetables—and is now present in up to 75 percent of all foods—but it is not the preferred energy source for muscles or the brain. It stimulates the feeding centre of the brain, the hypothalamus; it tells your brain that you’re not full and to keep eating.
Fructose is metabolized only in the liver and is more lipogenic, or fat-producing, than glucose. Research has shown that fructose, affects the appetite centres in the brain and prevents the release of hormones that regulate appetite. As a result, after overeating sugary foods and drinks, we no longer know when to stop eating other meals, because the signal that says, “I am full” is not working properly. The part of the brain that helps us say, “no more”, the prefrontal cortex, is weakened by overeating and drinking foods that contain sugar. To add to the punch, too much sugar increases the risk of high blood pressure, dementia, type 2 diabetes, cirrhosis of the liver, and heart disease.
Fructose and the fat cells
I remember the five-hundred-calorie scone I rewarded myself with on the way home from the gym. It was almost 50 percent fat and 25 percent sugar. If I knew about sugar addiction and bliss points, I would have been much better off eating a five-hundred-calorie snack that contained less sugar, salt, and fat. Why? Calories consumed in the form of sugar are not the same as calories from other foods. The average chocolate bar contains about two hundred and thirty calories and is about 50 percent sugar. An avocado with the same number of calories consists of just 0.2 percent sugar. The fat produced from the sugar in a candy bar is more than fifty times that in an avocado. You can see how much more work it is to burn off the sugar in the candy bar than in the avocado. While the calories from glucose are stored in your muscle cells or liver, the calories from fructose are converted into fat and stored in the adipose tissue, or fat cells, which lines the stomach, thighs, and butt.
The body triggers your fat cells to release energy only when it is not getting energy from anywhere else. From a primitive survival perspective, when you don’t know where the next meal is coming from, that’s important. Most people, at least in wealthier societies, have the opposite problem: the incredible amount of high-calorie and sugary food tempting us in workplaces, stores, and homes every single day.
The body contains two types of fat. Visceral fat gathers at your waistline and subcutaneous fat lies under your skin. High levels of fructose increase visceral fat. In addition to expanding your waistline, this type of fat increases your chances of developing chronic diseases such as type-two diabetes, cardiovascular disease, obesity, and metabolic syndrome.67-69 Even more alarming, when fructose is present in children’s fat cells as they mature, their bodies are less able to respond to insulin in both belly fat and skin fat, which is a marker for type-two diabetes—another reason not to fall into the sugar habit as a child.
There is a difference between us eating fructose in fresh apples, as they have an abundance of fibre, and nutrients that are lost when they are processed into apple sauce or apple juice. When fructose, is added to foods, it increases the number of calories without necessarily making the apple sauce any more filling. Apple juice, which is even more processed, has had almost all the fibber and nutrients stripped out. Eating one apple slowly, is far different to quickly eating a jar of apple sauce, that contains more than one apple, or drinking a bottle of apple juice.
In addition, even low levels of chronic exposure to stress hormones stimulate the growth of fat cells. Extended periods of exposure to stress hormones, such as cortisol, caused by such things as too little sleep, lead to bigger fat cells. Fat cells can shrink, but they never disappear. When you “lose” body fat, the fat cell stays right where it was, under the skin and on top of the muscles, which is why you can’t see muscle “definition” when your body fat is high. The key to shrinking your fat cells is not giving them excess energy to store.
Like fatty foods, cigarettes, and alcohol, sugar can be tough to resist (especially if you’re stressed or when someone brings cupcakes to work to celebrate a birthday or promotion). Ask anyone who regularly enjoys that perfectly glazed donut, that creamy chocolate bar, that sweet, fizzy soda, those salty fries, those crispy chips. Even worse, when you try to give them up, you can experience a withdrawal similar to alcohol and nicotine withdrawals.
When I was not feeling healthy, it was harder to go out into the world with confidence and purpose. But to get healthy in our brain and bodies, we must be aware of how stress, from the past and present, is impacting our brain health and dictating what we are eating, how much we are eating, and how much or how little we are exercising. After I changed my mind about how much sugar and other high fat food I was consuming, I changed my focus from diets, to managing stress by eating raw nuts instead.
Now that I can recognize when I’m stressed, I am able to pause, avoid taking “just a small piece of cake” or eating “only one chocolate,” and respond more rationally: taking a deep breath, walking, or tracing instead. The feelings of stress pass quickly and the need to turn to sugar goes away. I feel full when I eat a normal-size meal and am no longer comforted by high-calorie, sugary food, and drink. I cannot emphasize enough how important reducing my sugar intake was for transforming my brain and my body. Without managing stress and reducing sugar and alcohol intake, it is impossible to maintain my health and body over the long haul of life.
There are major benefits you may discover after reducing sugar intake in this or other ways. You may start to feel full after eating meals, your waistline may shrink, and see-saw diets end.
Things to try:
Work out how much sugar you eat every day?
The World Health Organisation recommends that women get no more than one hundred calories a day from added sugar; men, no more than a hundred and fifty calories per day.80 One teaspoon equals four grams of sugar. One gram of sugar has four calories; thus, one teaspoon of added sugar contains sixteen calories.
List five items you ate today and how much sugar is in each one: here’s how to find out: Look at the nutrition label on the back of the package or can. Now look at what’s written in the carbohydrates section. Remember, the values shown on the label are based on one serving. If the serving size is three cookies and you ate six, you consumed double the amount of sugar listed on the label. If there is no label, you can use an online nutritional database.
You can, and should, “tell sugar to get fruct”, using the infamous slogan for a brand of kombucha, that had the main selling point of removing fructose. Reading the packets on processed foods, and sugary beverages is the best place to start. A first step can eventually become a long-term habit, starting one item at a time. As you train your brain to say no to sugar, you will boost your brain health and you may have less need to go on a diet.
After all, trying just a spoonful of raw nuts makes the medicine go down in a most delightful, and fruitful, way.