Keep your brain healthy, your body will follow

If getting in shape is part of your 2017 Self-Improvement Plan (ie, New Year’s resolution), research from The University of Waterloo suggests you might want to focus on your brain health first.

A study published in Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine found overindulging in high-calorie snacks is partly caused by lapses in a specific part of your brain. It’s the first study to conclusively link reduced operation of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex with self-restraint in the dietary context.

“We discovered that when you temporarily dampen the operation of this particular part of the brain, strongly engrained—and quite universal—preferences for high calorie foods start to hijack people’s thought patterns and even their eating patterns,” Professor Peter Hall, senior author of the study told the University of Waterloo.

The prefrontal cortex is implicated in the brain’s executive functions, typically allowing people to engage in voluntary control over their behaviour.

Previous studies have shown that boosting activity in the prefrontal cortex reduces cravings for unhealthy foods. Hall’s study shows reducing activity leads to more cravings and food consumption.

The findings help shape effective public health interventions and focus on the preservation of brain health.

“The research suggests that the best solution to effective self-restraint lies in maximizing brain health,” says Hall. “Interventions aimed at enhancing or preserving dorsolateral cortex function in healthy populations may reduce the likelihood of obesity and other chronic conditions.”

Getting enough sleep, avoiding alcohol, and engaging in aerobic exercise have been proven methods in maximizing the strength of the prefrontal cortex.

‘Don’t diet ever’

And it’s just as well, considering the mounting evidence challenging the effectiveness of dieting and its role in healthy living. In fact, University of Windsor professor Josée Jarry advises against it.

“Don’t try to diet ever,” she told the Windsor Star last month in the lead up to the holidays. “That is not a good way to live.”

Jarry specializes in eating disorders and body image. She emphasizes a lifestyle adjustment when it comes to healthy eating and exercise, rather than what usually amounts to an unsustainable deprivation of certain foods.

Like many experts in the field, she supports everything in moderation, as those who diet tend to flip between dieting and overeating.

“The best way that the body has to protect itself from famine, which is effectively what we induce when we diet, is to put itself in the condition to accumulate fat as quickly as possible,” she says, adding dieting puts you in the best position to gain weight.

Jarry recommends developing a healthier relationship with food, setting realistic goals, and finding exercise routines that work with your lifestyle. This long-term approach will be far more effective than dieting.

“Go for the global, long-term changes rather than the birth of something that you will abandon and once again feel disappointed in yourself and defeated,” she says.

Looking for an effective exercise routine that improves your brain health and works for your lifestyle? Researchers from McMaster University and Brock University suggest trying high-intensity workouts and motivational self-talk during a workout, respectively.

See other posts on New Year’s resolutions and transitioning from holidays to work.

Tagged: Health & Wellbeing

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