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Controlling cravings is a know-brainer

Published: Thursday, Oct. 18, 2012 11:20 a.m. CST

Why do you overeat? What makes you cut yourself another piece of chocolate cake, empty the bag of potato chips or order a burger as big as your head?

Is it a basic lack of willpower, or is there another power, bigger and beyond, that makes us eat more than we want to even when we actively, positively, absolutely do not want to?

“Most weight problems occur between the ears, which may explain why diets don’t work,” says Dr. Daniel Amen, a world famous brain scientist, obesity researcher and author of the best-seller “The Amen Solution: The Brain Healthy Way to Lose Weight and Keep It Off.”

“It’s the brain that makes our eating decisions, and what we’ve found is that that there isn’t just one brain pattern associated with overeating — there are at least five.”

Amen has worked with the brain images of tens of thousands of people from 90 countries for more than 20 years. Reporting on his findings at a recent World Fitness Convention — and featured in the IDEA Fitness Journal — Amen said that the more you can do to improve your brain health, the more able you are to conquer cravings and overcome mindless overeating.

Here are some of his smartest strategies. You’ll find more at www.amenclinics.com:

Keep blood sugar in balance. When you eat that morning doughnut, you get a sugar high, followed by a sugar low, and lower blood sugar levels are linked to lower overall brain activity and more food cravings.

Amen wants his patients to keep blood-sugar levels even throughout the day. To do that, begin your day with a nutritious breakfast; eat smaller meals throughout the day; stay away from simple sugars and refined carbs; and eat cinnamon — not Cinnabons. One is a sugar-regulating spice, the other is a 730 calorie time bomb.

Just say no to artificial sweeteners. This is huge. Fake sweeteners can be up to 600 times sweeter than sugar, and they confuse the brain, making you crave even more food and more sugar. They are suspect for other reasons, too, but when it comes to your brain health, just say no.

Lessen your stress. Chronic stress has been linked to obesity, as well as addiction, anxiety, depressive disorders and cancer. Amen recommends deep breathing, meditation and hypnosis to sooth overactive, overeating brains.

Note: None of these strategies require consulting a bartender.

Outsmart sneaky triggers. Unhealthy eating is often triggered by where you are — your environment. Identify the triggers, says Amen, citing the mall, the airport, the movie theater or family gatherings as examples. Then bring healthy foods with you so you won’t give in to old bad habits.

Be aware of hidden food allergies. This will surprise you. Cravings and overeating can be triggered by allergies to wheat, milk, dairy, additives and artificial flavors. Mainstream medicine overlooks this as a cause of weight gain, Amen says, but his research has convinced him that undiscovered allergies can reduce blood flow to your brain, impair your judgment and contribute to poor brain health. Identifying hidden food allergies can be difficult, but the pay-off in wellness and weight loss can blow your mind.

Retrain your brain. Practice will power, Amen says. Say it loud, say it proud and say farewell to foods that are not good for you. Over time, this will strengthen new nerve cell connections in your brain, helping you form new, healthier habits.

Get moving. You knew it was coming, right? Exercise improves your brain’s ability to reduce cravings, handle stress and make better food choices. Eat smart, be smart.

Get enough sleep. Wake up! Sleep matters. If you don’t get enough, you’re more likely to overeat and develop more belly fat. Aim to sleep at least seven to eight hours a night.

Take natural supplements. Amen is the expert when it comes to brain health and weight loss, so if he says these supplements can help you control cravings, pay attention: N-acetylcysteine (NAC), alpha-lipoic acid, chromium, DL-phenylalanine and L-glutamine.

Overeating is a complex issue, but if you can wrap your mind around the basic idea that the chemistry of your brain is connected to the size of your belly, you’re on your way to making smarter, healthier choices. Amen to that!

Marilynn Preston — fitness expert, well being coach and speaker on healthy lifestyle issues — is the creator of Energy Express, the longest-running syndicated fitness column in the country. She has a website, http://marilynnpreston.com and welcomes reader questions, which can be sent to MyEnergyExpress@aol.com.

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