Our brains are fabulous. They really know how to keep us functioning, our lives interesting, and help us make choices all day long.
On top of that, they help us make decisions about when to eat and when to stop eating through messaging systems that tell us when we are full, and when we are hungry. In this way, our bodies keep functioning well and systems stay in balance.
But this system does not always work well, as we can see by the rising number of obese people worldwide.
Turns out that eating a diet high in saturated fats and sugars can throw off our brain’s messaging systems. That type of diet causes inflammation all over your body and brain. But let’s take a look at one particular place, a little gland in the depths of your brain called the hypothalamus. This gland acts like a switchboard in your brain for all sorts of processes that run your metabolism. It helps us detect what, how much, and when we need to eat.
To spell this out a little further, and to keep it simple, let’s take a brief look at something that is a big determinant of what and how much you tend to eat, day after day. It’s a messenger called leptin. Leptin is created and released by fat tissue. If you lose fat over a period of time, there is less leptin. That way, the brain (your hypothalamus) knows it needs to eat more in order to avoid starvation. And so forth. Most of the time this works really well. Until it doesn’t.
Enter Junk Food
That would be foods that are highly processed, fried, sweet, salty, creamy, and /or crunchy (potato chip anyone?). The biggest and most studied criminals here are saturated fats and sugars. And, of course, they taste great, so we tend to want more of them. Over time, if we keep doing that, our poor old hypothalamus does get inflamed and loses some of its razor-sharp function. It can start to “tune out” the leptin going to your brain even if you are eating enough. It can become resistant to leptin and then thinks the body needs more of it. Therefore, it wants you to put on some more fat to make more leptin!
What a nightmare. To make matters worse, the process going on up there in our brains literally goes on undetected by us, making it difficult to become discriminating. No wonder willpower is not such a great tool to use against this.
In a very real sense, we are dumbing ourselves down by eating junk food.
Junk Food Questions
There are a couple of really good questions to ask about this.
One is, how much junk food does it take to start this process? Are we doomed the moment we reach for the cheese cake? As you can imagine, “results may vary.” Since junk food is literally designed to be hyper-palatable, some of us are more susceptible to its charms than others (yes, genetics comes into it, but so do many other things). But in most of us, a consistent tendency to eat fried, sugary foods can start the inflammatory process that makes it very difficult to stop.
The other question is, can this process be reversed and if so, how hard is it? If you look around, you will notice that it appears to be VERY difficult to stop. Junk food is so available, so easy, and so fun. Obesity flourishes. But not so fast. It CAN be reversed by switching to unsaturated fats (olive oil, canola oil, nuts, avocado), fruits and veggies, whole grains, and in general unprocessed, non-junk food. After a while of eating that way, you actually start to prefer healthy food, and get grossed out (well, most of the time) by gloppy, fatty, sugary food. One other thing…exercise! Exercise helps with brain function by increasing circulation and removal of some of the nasty things that cause inflammation.
But, it takes a long time for that to happen. The brain has to switch over, and the messaging systems have to get back in sync. Gradually moving away from the junk food scene takes a long-term commitment, support, and a plan. I happen to think that it helps a lot to understand a little bit about what is happening in the brain before beginning the journey. That way, a long-term plan makes more sense, the goal is clear, and each time a change is made, you are actually outsmarting your own brain!
© 2020 Kristen Carter, MS. All rights reserved.