Your Brain on Food

While the human brain is roughly 2% of total body mass, it uses 20% of the body’s available energy to operate. Think about that… 20% of your nutritional intake is used to fuel 2% of your body! And the quality of that nutrition has a huge impact on the functioning of the brain. 

This should be motivation enough to think carefully about how you fuel your body. The body and brain operate at their peak when fueled with foods high in lean protein, vitamins, antioxidants, and monounsaturated fats. On the other hand, fueling with the typical fast food and packaged food options filled with refined sugar and processed carbohydrates is a recipe for ill health, poor performance, and degenerative “age-related” diseases.

With all the evidence so clearly presented, we can no longer ignore the role that food plays in our ability to think, reason, focus, and maintain a state of mental well-being. 

Though the brain is a real energy hog if you think about it, 80% of our total body mass is affected by the rest of the energy we consume. 

We are all creatures of habit. We find comfort in routine and avoid discomfort like the plague. This is the power that human inertia has over us. 

Those who haven’t developed a love for exercise and clean eating (yet) and who indulge in processed food and inactivity (due to being too stressed and fatigued to work out), are likely in that group of nearly 50% of people who are at an unhealthy weight. This positive energy balance means it’s normal to seek out comforts in food and idle distractions in times of stress—which is all the time when you’re in a state of hyper-arousal. 

This is a vicious negative cycle that’s difficult to get out of and is killing us slowly. Our go-to habits (like late-night fridge raids), however unhealthy, are soothing. They are familiar. But they are just short-term fixes creating a long-term deadly problem. 

Cognitive behavioral Theory (CBT) states that recognizing and acknowledging the negative impact of our choices and habits is the first step to changing them. We know that it’s important to eat healthy foods in reasonable quantities. We also know that we should be exercising regularly and sleeping 7-8 hours a night. We now understand the negative effect that not doing these things has on our brain.

 Food intake is the most crucial of the six pillars. Garbage in, garbage out means junk food intake leads to no energy to put out. Those poor food choices lead to no energy for exercise, which leads to poor sleep and greater stress. The vicious cycle starts with the thinking, which leads to poor fueling choices, and the downward cycle picks up steam from there.  So, it is crucial to understand why we desire certain foods at a subconscious level. If 2% of our body is using 20% of our fuel intake, it stands to reason that the brain plays a very important role in what we eat, when we eat, and why we eat. So, when we want to “go on a diet” or switch out bad eating habits for healthy ones, we need to look at changing the way we think about food and the whole process of fueling our system.

How the Brain Feels About Food

The hypothalamus, the region at the base of the brain, houses a center called the appestat. This center is believed to control appetite. It has an internal gauge that determines satiety, that feeling of being satisfied from eating. But the more we eat, the higher the setting goes, and the more food is required to trigger that feeling of being satisfied. This gauge plays a much bigger role in weight issues than calories. 

The need to eat starts with a stimulus (hunger pangs or a thought about food). This is followed by the brain immediately activating a sensation of desire for food, which is then gratified with consumption until the gauge in the appestat is back to neutral.

If this is a non-scheduled eating period, then afterward, the mind rationalizes and justifies why the eating occurred. If it’s planned, such as one of our three “square meals” a day, then it’s a no-brainer and you let yourself off the hook if you overdo it. But when we gorge on junk just because we feel that sensation to eat, we will beat ourselves up, sending more negative energy throughout the body. And the excuses pile up to get off the hook from feeling guilty, and the rationalization is that I’ll do better tomorrow. That statement generally ends the argument. Until tomorrow.

In his book, Healing and Recovery, psychiatrist, physician, researcher, and spiritual teacher Dr. David Hawkins1 tells us: “Our thoughts and beliefs about weight, activity, calories, and all the phenomena surrounding this have been affecting our weight. It is necessary to reverse the conventional, so-called ‘common sense’ of the left-brain logic that says it is the body that creates the mind. Instead, we have to look at the opposite, which is that what is held in mind manifests within the body.2 

Dr. Hawkins understood that there is a difference between the body needing fuel for survival and the body telling the brain to eat for a myriad of emotional reasons, including anxiety, cravings, and boredom. And once we distinguish between the genuine need for food and those other sensations, we can begin to control our eating habits through cognitive behavioral change in habits. The body will trick you until it is re-balanced. And the mind is trained to listen to the body. You can start to pay attention to the conditioning and interrupt the patterns that lead to unhealthy choices. 

But who is paying attention to the brain that is out of control?  The unconscious mind is conditioned from childhood to react to the body and other external stimuli. But your higher self, your all-knowing heart’s wisdom center, or soul if you will, knows what’s best. It is time to start listening to that. 

How to Retrain Your Brain to Eat Smarter

We’ve all heard “you are what you eat,” and this is true in the sense that your body will be shaped by what you eat. But I want you to start thinking that what you eat is a result of not just what you think, but how you think. The inability to control appetite is not just about having little willpower. This is why CBT alone falls short. We need to evaluate and adjust unhealthy eating habits at the source—long before a binge occurs. You will manage the desires, cravings, and emotional eating in the unconscious mind, which then shapes the conscious mind to make better cognitive (overt and conscious) choices, which in turn shapes your body for an uncommon life.

Practically speaking, there are numerous ways to begin the cognitive behavioral “conscious” level of retraining the brain from overeating: 

  • Slow down when you eat. 
  • Don’t eat when you’re distracted by the TV or anything else.3 
  • Manage stress using a tactic other than food and practice that new habit until it’s unconscious.
  • Stop eating well before bedtime. Ideally, you will eat or drink nothing for two hours before sleepy time. If you do, you will stimulate the release of the hormone cortisol, which will interrupt your sleep. Cortisol also stimulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism, making you hungry, oftentimes craving salt and sugar. Too much cortisol also offsets testosterone production. This can cause a decrease in muscle mass, which reduces the number of calories your body burns. This weight gain often happens in the belly region, increasing the risk for cardiovascular disease.4 
  • Exercise regularly. Regular exercise reduces overeating by creating a stronger mindset, one that leads to healthy food choices because the body is telling the brain that it feels better. 
  • Decrease sugar intake. Eating too much sugar confuses the brain, and it fires off false signals about hunger. Decreasing sweets, simple carbs like bread and cereal, and other foods with high fructose corn syrup turns that signal down. 
  • Eat more plants. The biome is a big contributor to unconscious fueling habits. Gut bacteria can affect how different foods are digested and produce chemicals that create the feeling of hunger or satiety. Fiber and plants (flavonoids) help manage weight due to the role of gut bacteria in the digestion process, sending the message of satisfaction.5 
  • If you can’t do it for you, do it for your pets. They’re eating the same amount as they’ve always been but exercising less, too! Our pets have fallen victim to our laziness, reducing their lifespan. If your pet is a big motivator for you, then change the habits for both of you!

How I’ve Changed My Own Diet

When I was in the SEALs, we did not pay attention to food choices like they do today. I was in the habit of jamming whatever I could get my hands on into my mouth after sixteen hours of training. We trained so hard and long that we would, and could, eat anything… pizza and beer being my favorite food groups. We didn’t know then about the importance of eating whole foods or about paleo and keto diets, or about the benefits of intermittent fasting. We just ate because we needed the calories, but it took its toll eventually. I’ve since habituated myself to avoid most processed foods, especially anything with refined sugar, white bread, and pasta products, and most other processed foods.
I also eat two meals a day between eleven AM and six PM since intermittent fasting has shown to enhance brain health and longevity. Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting. This style of fueling may compel the body to use fat stores in the liver, inducing the production of ketones. Studies have shown this metabolic switch also coincides with better brain function and offers protection from oxidative stress.6 Longer fasts of 24 hours or so are also an excellent means to reduce caloric intake and cleanse the body-brain from a build-up of toxins. Longer fasts also have emotional benefits, as they allow you to access emotions often numbed with food. 

All choices, behaviors and unconscious reactions originate as thoughts in our minds, impacted not just by our psychology, but also our physiology. The connection between mind and body is impossible to deny. So, to optimize thinking and behavior, we must work on both simultaneously. How can you get your body and brain on the same page about your nutrition so you can create your most uncommon life?

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