I’m a food addict. We all are. Our brains are biologically driven to seek and devour high-calorie, fatty foods. The difference is that I have learned how to control those primitive parts of my brain. Anyone can do this if they know how. In this article, I will share three steps to help you counteract those primitive parts of your brain that have you chasing high-calorie, nutrient-poor foods. But before you can update your brain’s biological software, you’ve got to understand why it developed in the first place.
The brain’s desire to binge on rich food is a genetic holdover from the days of hunters and gatherers. Given what scientists know today about our early ancestors, it makes sense that our brains are hardwired to fixate on high-calorie foods. It’s a survival mechanism. Eating as many calories as possible, whenever possible, allowed our ancestors to store excess calories as fat and survive in lean times. That approach worked well for 2.4 million years, but today it’s making us fat and sick. That’s because our brains haven’t evolved as fast as our food environment.
Our Brains Are Biologically Programmed
To Consume Caloric and Fatty Foods
The human brain has evolved over 2.5 million years. And, with the exception of the last 10,000 years, people only ate animals they could hunt and wild-plants they could gather. Imagine if you could only eat what you caught or picked! The variety of foods hunter-gatherers ate paled in comparison to the 40,000 different food items we can buy in the average big-box grocery store today. (1) No cinnamon buns for them.
And whereas we have easy access to food 24/7, drive-thru meals were not an option for hunter-gatherers. Not to mention that hunting and gathering was hard work. Early humans expended lots of calories acquiring their food, so they needed to eat high-calorie foods to offset the loss. The average hunter-gatherer got up to 60 percent of his calories from animal foods, such as muscle meat, fat and organ meat, and the other 40 percent from plants. (2)
That balance between protein and carbohydrates in the diet is where the problem lies – but it’s not what you think. Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap, but they are the single most important nutrient for long-term health and weight loss. I’m not talking about bagels and donuts. I’m talking about plant foods that more closely resemble what our ancestors ate.
Hunter-gatherers ate fruit, tubers, seeds, and nuts. These are whole foods. They are full of fiber, vitamins, minerals and disease- and weight-busting colorful phytochemicals. They also take time to digest. Therefore, they raise blood sugar slowly, which balances metabolism and offers a steady stream of energy. Whole foods have all the right information and turn on all the right genes.
But the past 10,000 years saw the advent of both agriculture and industrialization. And, in the blink of an eye (by evolutionary standards), the human diet got turned upside down. Today, 60 percent of our calories come from things that hunter-gatherers wouldn’t even recognize as food. The bulk of those items – cereal grains, sugary drinks, refined oils and dressings – are simple carbohydrates. (3) The primitive brain sees an endless supply of easy energy. Left unchecked, our bodies pay the price. The result is a two-fronted epidemic of obesity and diabetes in our country – what I call “diabesity.”
The blood sugar cascade
When you eat simple carbohydrates, whether as sugar or as starch, they pass almost instantaneously from the gut into the bloodstream. Within seconds, blood sugar levels start to rise. To counter the increase in sugar, the body releases insulin. Insulin is the key that unlocks the cells and allows sugar to enter. As sugar enters the cells, the amount of sugar in the blood declines and the body restores homeostasis.
An abundance of simple sugars in the diet goads the body into releasing more and more insulin. Eventually, the cellular locks get worn down from overuse. Like a key that’s lost its teeth, insulin loses its ability to easily open the cellular door. The cells become numb to the effects of insulin. As a result, the body pumps out more and more of the hormone to keep its blood sugar levels in check. Eventually, this cycle leads to a dangerous condition called insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is at the root of diabesity and causes you to gain belly fat, raises your blood pressure, messes up your cholesterol, makes you infertile, kills your sex drive, makes you depressed, tired and demented, and even causes cancer.
Three ways to reprogram your brain
Luckily, there are ways to rewire the primitive parts of your brain by making good food choices. Here are three ways to get started. For more suggestions on how to wrestle control from your reptilian brain, see Chapter 15 of my book, “The Blood Sugar Solution.”
• Balance blood sugar. Blood sugar highs and lows drive primitive food cravings. If you get famished between meals, that’s a sign that your blood sugar is crashing. When blood sugar is low, you’ll eat anything. To better balance blood sugar, eat a small meal or snack that includes healthy protein, like seeds or nuts, every three to four hours.
• Eliminate liquid calories and artificial sweeteners. Early humans didn’t reach for soda or fruit juices when they got thirsty. Sodas are full of chemicals and high fructose corn syrup. Processed fruit juices are awash in sugar. Try sticking with water and green tea. Green tea contains plant chemicals that are good for your health. And, last but not least, don’t succumb to the diet-drink trap. The artificial sweeteners in diet drinks fool the body into thinking it is ingesting sugar, which creates the same insulin spike as regular sugar.
• Eat a high-quality protein at breakfast. Ideally, you’re eating quality protein at every meal, but if you need to prioritize one meal, choose breakfast. Studies show that waking up to a breakfast rich in healthy protein, such as eggs, nuts, seeds, nut butters or a protein shake (see my “UltraShake” recipe), can help people to lose weight, reduce cravings and burn calories.
Ultimately, you may not control your genes, but you do control what and how you eat. Since taking control and changing my diet, my brain no longer succumbs to the cravings and urgings that seduce the reptilian brain. The most powerful tool you have to transform your health is your fork! Use it well and you will thrive.
To learn more, please see my latest book, “The Blood Sugar Solution.” Get one book or get two and give one to someone you love – you might be saving their life. When you purchase the book from this link you will automatically receive access to the following special bonuses:
• Special Report – Diabetes and Alzheimer’s: The Truth About “Type 3 Diabetes” and How You Can Avoid It.
• More Delicious Recipes: 15 Additional Ways to Make The Blood Sugar Solution as Tasty as It’s Healthy!
• Dr. Hyman’s UltraWellness Nutrition Coaching – FREE for 30 days!
• Hour 1 of The Blood Sugar Solution Workshop DVD
Now I’d like to hear from you…
Do you binge eat? Is your diet comprised of fast foods and sugar? Do you drink soda and add artificial sweeteners to your beverages? Please leave your thoughts by adding a comment below.
(1) “What to Eat,” Marion Nestle, p 17
(2) “Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets,” L Cordain, et al American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2000; 71
(3) “Plant-animal subsistence ratios and macronutrient energy estimations in worldwide hunter-gatherer diets,” L Cordain, et al American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2000; 71
Mark Hyman, MD is a physician and widely acclaimed book author. He is chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine and serves on the board of directors of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine. He is the founder and medical director of The Ultra Wellness Center in Lenox, Mass.
The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.