How Real Foods Reprogram Your Brain for Weight Loss

real foods - quinoa saladThis is a guest post by Amy Hager.

Adopting a Real Foods diet has a strong appeal for many people, especially when it promises practically effortless weight loss. Think about it. What was it that prompted you to make the switch? Perhaps you had a friend that told you how much better he or she felt since giving up processed foods. Or was it your co-worker with now radiant skin and glowing smile that got you curious? Maybe it was your sister who’s now lost 22 pounds and counting since green smoothies have become a staple in her diet. The reality is that eating real foods leads to real results in your body.

The Magic is in the Mixture

Consider the Standard American Diet (SAD, yes, I know). Most of the foods are processed, meaning that a lot of not-so-good for you ingredients are added to the food. Extra salt, sugar, bad fats, preservatives, flavorings, etc., are present in amounts that are much higher than anywhere else in nature. SAD foods typically are lacking in quality vitamins, minerals, fiber, water content, antioxidants, and enzymes. The other thing about SAD foods is that many of them are designed by the food industry, which has studied carefully which combinations of ingredients make you want to eat more and more of their foods, even if you’re full. What you’re left with is food that’s not very nourishing, but chemically very tasty to the brain and untrained taste buds. The danger of this is that you can easily take in too many calories quite quickly, possibly without knowing when to stop.

Contrast that with eating real foods. You now have foods that don’t have extreme, addictive tastes. The foods have more texture, more bulk (from fiber) and it usually takes longer to eat them. The natural nutrient  and water content makes these foods feel more filling, so that you can more easily know when you’re getting full. And as you are getting more essential nutrients into your body, you are becoming more nourished so that cravings aren’t as strong as you may experience when eating primarily SAD foods.

The Brain Response

An interesting thing happens in the brain during digestion. Normally, hormones in the gut signal to the brain when you start getting full as you become satisfied from your food. But sometimes this process doesn’t happen so smoothly. Imagine eating a nice meal out and you are feeling a little stuffed. If the server were to bring out a platter of baby carrots after the main course- do you think you’d be tempted to eat a few? Probably not. Why? Because you’re full and satisfied. But what if the server were to bring out a delectable dessert, bite sized morsels of your absolute favorite treat. What do you think would happen next? I’m betting you might try a bite. But after the first bite, you may be suddenly able to “make room” for several more.

So what happened here? It’s actually a complex chemical cascade in the brain that gets triggered by love at first bite. Actually, make that first sight! Some people are quite visually suggestive and just the sight of their favorite foods can trigger a hormonal response. One of the things about SAD foods is that they are typically higher in sugars, salt and fats. It just so happens that this magic combination is also a huge trigger for the reward center in the brain. This reward center releases a surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that makes us feel a rush of good feelings. And that’s what makes junk foods taste so good, it’s not just the taste buds that are responding but our brain and our entire body feel the effects. Naturally, the more we consume these hyper-palatable (super tasty) food combinations, the more we crave them. We end up craving them so much, that we eat portions larger than we need and even when we aren’t hungry.

Reprogramming the Brain

By now, I’m sure you can see the slippery slope of how SAD foods keep us in a cycle of craving and overeating. For many, this is what leads to weight gain over time and makes it difficult to switch to new styles of eating. There are very strong, biological & chemical reactions occurring in the brain that have been argued to be as intense an experience as drug addiction. This certainly illuminates the struggle for many who have difficulty losing weight.

Despite the powerful reactions that certain food combinations can have on our body, we can take more control by choosing which combinations of food that we eat. If you’ve known someone who had to follow a low sodium or sugar free diet (perhaps yourself) they may have told you that after awhile they got used to it. In fact, they can’t go back to eating the “regular” foods because they taste too salty or sugary. This demonstrates the ability of our taste buds to adapt to changes in the diet. Surely the adaptation didn’t occur overnight, but after a few weeks the person has experienced a significant change in how they perceive an extreme taste such as sweetness or saltiness.

You can have this same effect over reducing the addictive power of SAD foods by incorporating more whole, real foods into your diet. As you begin to remove the SAD foods that are primarily sugar, salt and fat combinations (chips, donuts, cookies, chocolate, fries, fast food & take out) your brain reward center is getting stimulated less and less. And as you keep real foods as the staple of your diet, you are nourishing your body adequately so that the brain is not suffering cravings due to lack of nutrients. You begin to slowly reprogram your brain for balance. When this happens, your body follows suit and excess pounds start to drop away. The fun part about it is that you didn’t have to count calories, measure or weigh your food or exercise endless hours at the gym for this to happen.

Keeping it Real

It’s important to pay attention to your own individual experience when switching to a real foods diet. Sometimes we don’t get the results our neighbors did and wonder why. It’s possible that this addictive combination may be sneaking into your body without your consent.  Even real foods have the potential to taste addictive to the brain, so try to notice if this is happening to you.

  • Are you making a lot of recipes that feature intense sweeteners like dates, honey or agave?
  • Are you finding yourself adding salty or sweet sauces to your foods?
  • Do you notice that you eat a lot more nuts when they are roasted, salted or honey glazed?

These are just a few ideas where the calories (and tasty second helpings) can sneak up on you, leaving you frustrated in your weight loss or maintenance plan. But the good news is that for the most part following a diet comprised of whole, natural, minimally processed foods will leave you feeling energized, satisfied and feeling good. And when you feel good, you want to do good (like take a walk or cook a meal). And when you start doing these things regularly,  you really start to notice the lasting impact eating real foods can have.

Amy HagerAmy Hager is a registered dietitian nutritionist and a Wellcoaches® certified health & wellness coach. She keeps busy as a bee tending her own backyard beehives as well as helping clients navigate a happier, more meaningful journey towards lasting weight loss and can be found at