In addition to cognitive and other brain-based strategies to curb overeating, these four tactics have shown promise in studies.
- Get more sleep. Several studies in recent years support links between sleep deprivation, selective brain activation, and possible weight gain. In a 2012 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, researchers presented images of food to one group of people who had slept adequately and another group who had undergone sleep deprivation. The sleep-deprived group exhibited greater activation in the brain regions associated with appetite and the impulse to eat. And a 2019 study in the Journal of Neuroscience found that desire for junk foods in young men of healthy weight increased the morning after a single night of sleep deprivation, compared to when they got their normal rest—and that this corresponded with increased activity in a circuit in the brain involving the hypothalamus and the amygdala.
- Exercise more. You may think that exercise boosts appetite. But recent brain-based research suggests that exercise may actually suppress appetite and boost the ability to choose healthy over unhealthy foods. In a small study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2014, researchers showed images of low-calorie and high-calorie foods to 15 healthy men who had just done high-intensity exercise. Not only did brain scans show increased neural response to healthy food and decreased response to unhealthy food, but exercise also lowered the concentration of the appetite hormone ghrelin and raised levels of the gut hormone peptide YY (PYY), which leads to satiety.
- Consider eating a modest, high-protein breakfast. It’s still debatable whether or not eating breakfast is an effective weight-loss strategy, with some dieters favoring a morning meal and others skipping this “breaking of the fast” altogether. A number of studies (often sponsored by the egg industry) have found that those who eat a high-protein breakfast tend to consume fewer calories the rest of the day than do breakfast skippers and that they have lower levels of ghrelin, higher levels of PYY, and increased brain signaling in the regions involved in self-control. But other studies have shown no weight-related breakfast benefits. If you do favor a morning meal, opt for high-protein choices such as a veggie omelet or Greek yogurt with nuts instead of breakfast foods high in simple carbs and added sugar, such as jam on white toast.
- Eat slowly, chew well. It takes about 20 minutes for satiety signals to reach the brain after you start to eat, so slow eaters tend to consume less. Chewing may also stimulate satiety signals. What’s more, eating slowly makes you more aware of the smell, taste, and texture of the foods, which can lead to satisfaction with fewer calories. A 2018 study in BMJ Open, which included health data from nearly 60,000 people, found that, compared to fast eaters, slow eaters were 42 percent less likely to be overweight, while normal-speed eaters were 29 percent less likely to be overweight.
This content first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter and the 2019 UC Berkeley Nutrition and Weight Control White Paper.