1. SWITCH TO A MEDITERRANEAN-STYLE DIET
Studies show that a Mediterranean-style diet can improve the performance of a brain region linked specifically to self-control.
The urge to give in to cravings of any kind – whether for food, nicotine, alcohol or gambling – is closely linked to a set of reward pathways forming part of the mid-brain. Signals from these pathways, however, can be given a ‘veto’ by another set of neurons, closer to the front of the brain, within the ‘prefrontal cortex’ or PFC.
In small children, the PFC is particularly under-developed. This is one reason why children struggle so much when they are not allowed whatever they want.
When the PFC functions well, on the other hand, we display the opposite of toddler tantrums.
We are better able to focus; we have greater self-control, including control over what we eat; and we have greater mental flexibility. Together, these qualities are termed ‘executive function’.
In a review of a number of studies, a team of researchers at Trinity College, Dublin found that people who consume a Mediterranean-style diet – particularly one rich in extra-virgin olive oil, fish and fresh vegetables – tend to have better executive function compared to those following conventional weight-loss advice.
In order to conquer addictive foods, then, it is essential to keep your self-control in peak condition. And to do this, you need to look after your PFC.
And to do this? Stock up your cupboards with fresh vegetables, fish, and extra-virgin olive oil.
2. GET ACTIVE!
Increased fitness leads to increased prefrontal cortex size, which makes it easier to make the right food choices.
As we have seen, the idea that the brain is an unchangeable, hardwired set of drives is false: A factor as simple as the amount of fish you eat can have a measurable effect on how it functions.
Exercise, like diet, is another easy way to build a brain that can resist the lure of addictive foods.
In 2011, a study showed that exercise can reverse loss of brain matter in later life. These kinds of results are especially important, as they support the conclusion that that exercise builds a better brain – not the other way around.
Remember, to get fitter, you don’t have to exhaust yourself training for a marathon, or squeeze into neon lycra. The key is to find an activity that you enjoy enough to take part in at least three times each week.
As well as following a structured programme of exercise, you can also improve your heart and lung function by increasing the number of steps that you take through the day.
3. TRY TO LIMIT YOUR EXPOSURE TO STRESS
Stress measurably reduces your brain’s ability to resist unhealthy, tempting snacks.
To make it easier to choose healthy foods, try three simple steps: Plan your meals in advance; sleep more; try mindfulness.
Studies of how the brain responds to stress have made an amazing discovery: The drive to hit the junk when you are under pressure has its roots in brain pathways that are as real as anything else in your body. Junk food truly does become more attractive to us when we are stressed.
The sight of junk food, when we are stressed, is an obesity-trap.