Your brain wants the very stuff you are trying to avoid when you are on a diet: sugar. Here is the why and how to handle it.
Your Brain On Sugar
Remember that afternoon and evening learning for a history test, when you tried to ram into your head what Napoleon did before, during and after the siege of Smolensk? And why six months later he tried his darned best to forget he ever heard about the place?
Or, later in life, that complicated project on the job that had your brain run on overtime?
No matter what it was that had you concentrate deeply, didn’t you at some point get a very strong urge to have something sweet, sticky and immensely satisfying?
That craving for sugar is no coincidence, because the brain’s neurons run on the most simple form of sugar, glucose, colloquially also called “blood sugar.”
Whatever carbohydrates you eat get turned into it, but with sweets the process is faster, because they are made from simple carbs. Converting the complex carbs in bread, for example, takes the body more effort. When your brain wants energy, it wants it now.
Willpower Vs. Glucose
Thinking is very energy-intensive and when you concentrate a lot, the brain goes through its fuel like a F16 on interceptor course. If it doesn’t get it, it affects everything from your concentration over social interactions to your willpower:
- In one experiment, researchers put a bowl of cookies before one group of participants and told them they were not allowed to eat them. When this group and a second then had to do a frustrating task, the group that had to resist the cookies gave up earlier.
- In another, researchers told one group that they could drink the beer they were given, but not too much, because they were to do a driving test. That group drank more than the second one, who had received no instructions about the beer.
- A third study looked at how likely Israeli judges were in granting parole to delinquents. Lucky you, if your case was up after a meal break: 65% were granted. On empty stomach they sent just about everyone back to breathing sieved air.
Your Diet Vs. Your Glucose
The first experiment highlights the catch-22 when you are trying to lose weight.
Let’s say you are on a diet, a time when you deliberately restrict the amount of food you eat. Food is readily available all around you, so not eating it becomes a pure task of willpower.
Exercising that willpower burns glucose in your brain, your blood sugar goes down and your brain wants sugar even more.
The Trick To Succeed
The solution to this is obvious: give your brain what it needs to run, but control the total quantities. First calculate your daily allowed calories with the tools I provided here. Then let your brain have some simple carbs, while staying below the limit.
If you catch the urge on time, you can also steer where they come from: instead of a candy bar, go for fruits. They have simple carbs, but also a bunch more nutrients your body benefits from.
Picture courtesy of Tony Hisgett.