Wise up to lose weight: A leading neuroscientist says the key to dieting is understanding your personality
Worry a lot? Dukan won’t work for you but WeightWatchers will. A workaholic? Forget low-calorie diets – you need The Zone. A leading neuroscientist says the key to dieting is understanding your personality…
Last updated at 10:18 AM on 24th October 2011
Have you ever wondered why other people can launch themselves into a diet plan, lose weight and stick to it, when you are left floundering with frustration, fury and driven demented by cravings?
It can be tempting to blame this on your impossibly busy schedule, hormones or high-calorie socialising and resign yourself to the fact your willpower is infuriatingly pathetic.
But, according to an exciting new weight loss plan taking the U.S. by storm, it could be the diet you’re on simply isn’t right for the way your brain works.
Make the right choice: By identifying your brain type, you could find a diet that works for you
By comparing more than 66,000 brain
scans, American neuro-scientist Dr Daniel Amen has discovered that if
you struggle with your weight, you are most likely to have one of four
different brain types — and your type will determine the kind of diet
plans that are most likely to work and the ones that won’t.
These types are compulsive (which suits a healthy carbohydrate plan, such as WeightWatchers), impulsive (fares best on a high protein, low-carb diet), emotional (needs healthy fats, proteins and carbs) and anxious (suits a macro-biotic diet combining wholefoods and vegetables).
To find out which type you are, take our quiz…
IDENTIFY YOUR BRAIN TYPE
If you answer ‘frequently’ to three or more statements in the below sections, that eating style applies to you.
- Do you get stuck on negative thoughts?
- Worry excessively?
- Have a tendency for compulsive or addictive behaviours?
- Hold grudges?
- Get upset when things don’t go your way?
- Feel emotional when things are out of place?
- Tend to be oppositional or argumentative?
- Dislike change?
- Need to have things done in a certain way?
- Do you find it difficult to concentrate?
- Lack attention to detail?
- Are you easily distracted?
- Have a tendency to procrastinate?
- Are you restless?
- Do you lose things?
- Often blurt out answers and frequently interrupt?
- Say or do things without thinking?
- Need caffeine or nicotine in order to focus?
- Are you rather negative?
- Get dissatisfied or bored?
- Suffer low energy levels?
- Have little interest in fun things?
- Do you ever get a feeling of hopelessness or helplessness?
- Cry a lot?
- Have low self-esteem?
- Shy away from family and friends?
- Do you often feel sad?
- Are you generally quite nervous and anxious?
- Prone to panic?
- Do you have tension headaches and tight knotted muscles?
- Have a tendency to predict the worst?
- Avoid conflict?
- Scared of being scrutinised by others?
- Are you a workaholic?
- Lack confidence in your abilities?
- Always expecting something bad to happen?
- Are you easily startled?
Dr Amen believes the brain types explains how high protein diets, such as Atkins, can be so successful for some personality types, but disastrous for others.
‘Almost all diets have a one-size-fits-all approach,’ he says, ‘but our research over the past 20 years shows giving everyone the same diet plan may make some people better but it will make a lot of people worse.’
His research has identified patterns associated with brains that tend to be compulsive, impulsive, emotional or anxious in various combinations. These patterns, he believes, have a strong correlation with the way people eat — and specifically the way they over eat.
Contrary to popular belief, Dr Amen is adamant that metabolism has far less to do with obesity.
‘It is your brain that pushes you away from the table, telling you you’ve had enough, and it is your brain that gives you permission to have that second bowl of ice cream,’ he says.
His on-going studies have shown that only when you know about your own brain type, can you pick the diet, supplements and exercise plan that suit you best.
This, he says, should make losing weight — and keeping it off — a whole lot easier.
You tend to get stuck on thoughts of food, often feeling a compulsive drive to eat, with little control. You may be a night-time eater (or prone to a glass of wine in the evenings to calm yourself down) and you may have trouble sleeping.
Curb your cravings: Compulsive eaters can be late night snackers so should avoid eating in the evening
Scans show compulsive eaters generally have too much activity in the front part of their brains, especially the ACG (anterior cingulated gyrus) — the area that allows us to shift our attention and adapt to change.
When there is too much activity in this part of the brain, we tend to become stuck on negative thoughts or behaviours. Dr Amen believes over-activity in the ACG is commonly caused by low levels of the neurotransmitter, serotonin.
DIETS THAT WON’T WORK: High protein diets (Atkins, Dukan).
These tend to be ‘concentration diets’, which help people focus, but they can make compulsive eaters hone in on the things that upset them, making them angry and aggressive.
DIETS THAT WILL: Plans that include healthy carbohydrates (Low GI, Carb Lovers Diet, WeightWatchers) because carbohydrates raise serotonin levels.
- Eating foods that boost serotonin to calm the brain (bananas, beetroot, brown rice, cottage cheese, herbal tea, mackerel, salmon, sunflower seeds, Swiss cheese and turkey).
- Aerobic exercise boosts serotonin levels in the brain and helps you stop thinking about fatty foods. Compulsive eaters love sameness, so if you find a form of exercise you enjoy, you’re likely to stick to the same routine. However, it’s a good idea to try to vary your workout so you learn to become less rigid. Studies show as little as five minutes of exercise is enough to curb cravings.
- Avoid eating in the evenings. This confuses your body clock and encourages your body to store fat.
- Give yourself food choices not edicts — compulsive eaters don’t like to be told what they can and can’t eat.
- Supplements, such as 5-HTP, the B vitamin inositol, L-tryptophan and St John’s Wort, boost serotonin levels.
You may begin each day with good intentions, but if you are an impulsive eater, you probably have trouble controlling your behaviour. Although you don’t think about food constantly (like compulsive eaters) when you see food, you find it hard to resist and will rarely say no to a second slice of cake.
Brain scans of impulsive eaters show decreased activity in the PFC (prefrontal cortex) area of the brain, which is the bit that controls judgement, planning, organisation and learning from mistakes. The PFC works as the brain’s brakes, stopping us saying silly things or making bad decisions.
When its working well, it helps you say no to that cheese-burger or muffin. But when it isn’t, you may find yourself troubled by short attention span, poor judgment and impulsivity.
Alcohol lowers activity in the PFC, which is why people tend to act less responsibly when drunk. Low PFC activity is linked with low levels of the neurotransmitter, dopamine.
DIETS THAT WON’T WORK: High-carb diets. Anything that boosts serotonin levels (as carbs do) will calm the brain and make impulsive eaters worse by further lowering impulse control.
DIETS THAT WILL: High-protein diets, where carb levels are kept low (it’s OK to eat carrots, but not carrot cake).
- Make sure your diet is rich in chicken, turkey, cottage cheese and ricotta cheese, eggs, oats and yoghurt, which are all brain-healthy foods that are high in amino acids called pheylalanine and tyrosine — the building blocks for creating dopamine
- Avoid or cut down on alcohol, caffeine, sugar and stress (they deplete dopamine levels). Sugar is particularly bad for this brain type and can make cravings (and impulsive eating) much worse.
- Exercise (particularly doing something you love) will help increase blood flow and dopamine in the brain. Impulsive eaters need lots of aerobic exercise — at least 30 minutes a day — and crave variety, so mix it up.
- Try a form of yoga that includes meditation to sharpen your focus and strengthen your PFC so you can make better choices and reduce impulsivity.
- Green tea has been shown to enhance brainwave activity and increase focus. You may find helpful the herb rhodiola (it increases blood flow to the brain, especially the prefrontal cortex) and the amino acid L-tyrosine (it boosts thyroid action to help the brain function).
Happy mind, happy body: Emotional eaters will flourish by taking exercise classes
This brain type is most common in women who tend to eat when they’re feeling low, in the hope it will make them feel better. If you are an emotional eater, you struggle with feelings of loneliness, depression and low self-esteem.
You may also have low energy levels and a tendency to feel guilty, helpless or worthless.
If you suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), these traits will intensify in winter. Dr Amen’s scans show this type have increased activity in the deep limbic areas of the brain (which sets your emotional tone).
This can induce negativity, lowering drive and self-esteem. Scans also show decreased PFC activity, which explains poor food choices.
DIETS THAT WON’T WORK: High-protein or high-carb diets.
DIETS THAT WILL: The Mediterranean diet (oily fish, fresh fruit and vegetables), the Zone (a mix of healthy fats, proteins and carbs).
- Getting your vitamin D levels checked (ask your GP for a blood test or you can buy home testing kits for about 50 online). Vitamin D deficiency is common and associated with depression, memory problems and obesity. ‘In the U.S., an estimated two- thirds of the population is low in vitamin D. I’d expect things to be the same in the UK, if not worse, because of the lack of sunshine,’ says Dr Amen.
- Increase your intake of omega-3 fatty acids by eating more fish, walnuts, avocado and green leafy vegetables, and take a fish oil supplement. Low levels of omega-3 are linked to depression and obesity.
- Ensure you get plenty of sleep.
- Don’t become isolated from family and friends.Social bonding calms hyperactivity in the deep limbic system, improving your mood.
- Finding the motivation to exercise is hard for this brain type, particularly in the winter, but studies show exercise is more effective than anti-depressants at improving brain activity. It increases blood flow and multiple eurotransmitters in the brain. Your body type responds best to aerobic activities that are sociable, such as dancing.
- DHEA supplements may help (25-50mg daily). This is a master hormone that has been found to be low in people with depression and obesity.
- Consider taking the supplement SAMe (S-adenosyl methionine 400-1600mg per day). It is involved in the production of several neurotransmitters (serotonin, dopamine, epinephrine) and helps the brain to function properly.
You tend to ‘medicate’ your feelings of anxiety and fear with food. You may feel uncomfortable in your skin and plagued by feelings of panic, fear and self-doubt. You are a ‘glass half empty’ type with a propensity to predict the worst.
Stay calm: Anxious eaters should try activities like yoga
Scans show increased activity in the basal ganglia area of the brain (which sets your anxiety levels and integrates thoughts, feelings and movements).
High anxiety can lead to over-eating, especially sugary, high-carbohydrate foods that have a calming effect.
But studies show highly refined carbohydrates, such as fizzy drinks and cakes, activate the basal ganglia area of the brain in the same way cocaine does, triggering the release of dopamine.
DIETS THAT WON’T WORK: Very low -calorie diets as hunger increases levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
DIETS THAT WILL: The Zone, or macro-biotic diets that combine wholefoods and vegetables.
- Brain foods high in the amino acid glutamine,) such as bananas, broccoli, brown rice, citrus fruit and nuts.
- Cutting back on caffeine and alcohol, which exacerbate stress.
- Try yoga or tai chi for relaxation and meditation, hypnosis, and deep diaphragmatic breathing exercises.
- The herbs valerian and kava kava may help you sleep.
- The supplements vitamin B6, magnesium and lemon balm can reduce anxiety levels.
The Amen Solution by Dr Daniel Amen, published by Crown Archetype
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