It’s been a little over two weeks since the start of the New Year. If you’re like the millions of Americans who have professed a New Years’ resolution, you’ve probably resolved to lose weight, stick to a diet, or exercise more. Also if you are similar to these millions of people, you have probably given up on your resolution already.
I get it, it is hard to pick a salad when you can have a Big Mac or to get up to go to the gym when you can have ten more minutes of sleep. But there might be an easier solution under your nose (or behind it, rather).
What if I told you that you can use your brain to elicit weight loss? After all, our brains are what tell us that we’re hungry, when we’re full, and when food feels good. Here I’ll outline three ways to use your good ole brain to keep you from eating too much grain (or pizza, or cheeseburgers, or chocolate cake).
Okay so if you’ve been serious about losing weight for a while you have probably indulged in one or more diet supplements and are ready to dismiss miracle pills for weight loss. Most diet supplements work by providing your body with excess caffeine, thereby giving you more energy to exercise and forcing your body to burn more calories when idle. The new trend in weight loss medication, however, targets specific chemicals in the brain associated with over-eating.
If you have a television and subscribe to cable, then I am sure you have seen the advertisements for Belviq, a new weight loss medication. If seeing images of people rock climbing aren’t enough to convince you to buy this medication, then the science will. According to their website:
“It all starts with chemical messengers called neurotransmitters. Some neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, can stimulate the brain, telling us to take a certain action—such as “Eat now!” Other neurotransmitters, like serotonin, are associated with satiety.
In a nutshell: we smell food; certain neurotransmitters are released that makes us want to eat; when we eat, serotonin is released, causing feelings of fullness when specific receptors associated with satiety.
As serotonin is naturally activating its receptors to cause feelings of fullness, BELVIQ and BELVIQ XR are believed to selectively activate those “fullness receptors,” helping us feel satisfied with less food.”
In science terms, Belviq (generic name Lorcaserin) is a serotonin agonist, which means that the medicine binds to serotonin receptors, causing the receptors to release more serotonin. In addition to being associated with satiety, serotonin is colloquially known as the “happy hormone”. Studies again and again have shown that the amount of serotonin in the brain is related to happiness and mood.
Because bad, greasy food is known to make us happy, it is theorized that indulging in these calorie bombs is accompanied by an increase in serotonin. Therefore, if we combine a serotonin stimulator with healthier foods (or at least not 10,000 calorie meals from the Cheesecake Factory), we can recreate the bliss that accompanies fatty foods, therefore making us like healthier foods more. If high fat foods make us feel good and low fat foods make us feel good, then there are no excuses in picking a smothered burrito over a lettuce wrap.
If the word “serotonin” sounds familiar, you have probably heard of the term SSRI, or selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor. This is the mechanism by which antidepressants improve mood. Instead of targeting serotonin receptors to increase the production of the happy molecule, like in Belviq, SSRI’s increase the amount of serotonin in the brain by stopping the reuptake and reabsorption of the particle.
It should come as no surprise that one of the major side effects of antidepressants is loss of appetite. When I was on Prozac, I felt no inclinations to eat, and actually had to force myself to eat a bagel every couple of hours in college. In fact, some doctors prescribe Wellbutrin, an antidepressant with the sole intention of weight loss.
Have you heard the term “stress eating”? Most of us can agree that when we feel a little sad or anxious we head straight to the refrigerator to aid in our healing. This is where antidepressants can additionally be of service on our journeys to weight loss, as consistent medication can slow the number of these occurrences by decreasing anxiety and fostering more positive emotions. If you are happy already, then you will not look to food to provide you with happiness.
Besides creating pleasurable experiences through taste, we indulge on specific foods that accompanied emotional experiences in our pasts. Have you ever gotten a special ice cream cone whenever your parents took you to the beach? Did you always have pizza parties for your birthday growing up? Do you frequent Jell-O wrestling matches?
It should come to no surprise then when you frequently pack your shopping cart with ice cream, pizza, and Jell-O whenever you visit the dreaded supermarket. You have been conditioned to like these treats because they have been repeatedly associated events that have brought you joy. Therefore, spoiling yourself with these treats also bring you positive emotions as often as you like.
Of course, it is tricky, if not impossible, to reverse these associations made during childhood. But, we can use conditioning to make healthier strides in adulthood. Psychologists warn against the use of negative stimulants in weight loss: punishing yourself often leads to binge and over eating, all while creating a deeper hole of depression and self-loathing if you cannot keep to a strict diet. Conditioning should be utilized to create more positive affiliations to drown out the other unhealthy associations.
Next time when you are celebrating a birthday, a promotion at work or actually meeting someone worthy of a second date, don’t reach for the alcohol, the sweets, or the grease. If you consistently reward yourself with healthier treats over a long period of time, your brain can make new connections between positive emotions and food that is better for you.
Start off small: instead of ice cream eat frozen yogurt, instead of a large Little Caesar’s Hot-n-Ready try a grilled flatbread. Building new connections takes time and constant practice when we are adults, so this way will take constant effort. But isn’t your health in need of constant monitoring anyway?
In college as a intrigued psychology major, I took part in running a study that delved into using self-control as a means for weight loss. The idea of the study was that if we target certain areas of the brain that are important in self-control and encourage participants to use these areas when making decisions about what to eat, then subjects will lose weight. Participants underwent training using EEG in a course that was previously used for tobacco cessation and then had their weight recorded after a six week period.
Amazingly, the participants who took part in the self-control training over a placebo training lost significantly more weight.
Of course you are probably asking how this can pertain to you when you don’t have an EEG or access to highly intricate training software. The point of this is that utilizing self-control was enough for the participants to lose weight, and there are many other ways for you to practice self-control. Here are a few:
- Meditation-Many studies have shown that individuals that meditate have more willpower as well as improved stress-management, attention, and self-awareness. If you can train yourself to monitor your breathing then you can sure as hell monitor what you eat and how much you eat.
- Get more sleep- When we give our brains ample time to recharge, we are able to make better decisions, including decisions about how much we eat.
- Keep a bullet journal- If you make yourself aware of your goals and what you want to accomplish, you will find yourself having more control over your daily activities. Keeping a journal or to-do list will keep you from becoming procrastinated and give you more control over your life.
- Maintain your blood sugar- This is where it gets tricky. Glucose is our brains’ fuel just as it is for our bodies. Research has shown that acts of self-control reduce glucose levels in the brain, while also explaining that low levels of glucose result in poor performance on self-control tasks. Psychologists recommend drinking a sugary drink periodically, such as lemonade, while not overdoing it with the sugar.
So there you have it: three ways to use your brain to lose weight. Of course, all of these tricks work much better with the inclusion of diet and exercise, but can provide a measurable difference when compared to lazing around on the couch. Remember: stay happy, associate your happiness with healthier food, and try not to put so much pressure on yourself. It’s not like the weight of the world is on your shoulder when it comes to your actual weight.