8 Mental Tricks to Fight Fat

Is your brain sabotaging your diet? Experts say it plays a big role in how and when we eat. So how can we train our brain to make healthier decisions? From turning down the music to stumping your sense of smell, here are 8 ways to stop your head from messing with your waistline. Plus, are you finally ready lose weight? Take our quiz to find out... Sure, spending time at the gym and counting calories are good for keeping the scale steady. But experts say the key to hitting your goal weight could be all in your head. That’s because your brain – not your stomach – dictates what and how much you should eat. “Many of the hormones that impact your appetite and weight are either produced or regulated by your brain,” says Svetlana Kogan, M.D., board-certified internist and founder of the medical facility Doctors At Trump Place in New York City. “So it’s smart for women to step in and stop things like over-eating at the source: their head.” From stimulating appetite to directing eating habits, your brain is in the driver’s seat when it comes to your diet. These 8 tips will help keep your weight-conscious wits about you. 1. Don't pump up the volume. Loud music (88 decibels, or dB) ramps up signals in your brain to drink almost 30% faster than you would if the music were at decibels you didn’t have to shout over (72 dB), according to a 2008 study by the University of Ulster in Ireland. The scientists found that the louder the music blared, the longer people hung out at a bar, and the more booze they guzzled. The fix: Wear a watch. Ever notice the lack of clocks in clubs? It’s for a good reason. The owners don't want you to realize how much time – or money – you’re spending. The scientists suspect that exposure to loud music changes your perception of how quickly time is passing. So slipping a watch around your wrist or even setting an alarm on your cell phone to go off once an hour will help you stay focused on how long you've been out. This awareness can make you consume fewer liquid calories, says lead researcher Nicolas Guéguen, Ph.D. 2. Stop thinking about losing weight. A day of dodging cakes and chips in the breakroom just might make you fall off the diet wagon. Dieters, or people trying not to think about food, are 30% more likely to give into impulses at the grocery store, according to 2008 University of Minnesota research. Their theory: Concentrating all that willpower on not eating leaves you vulnerable to impulse buys and, subsequently, food splurges. The fix: To keep from binging in the checkout line, shop for groceries early in the day, advises lead researcher, Kathleen Vohs, Ph.D., professor of consumer psychology at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota. Your self-control will be stronger and fresher because it hasn’t been tested that day. Still, have an “if/then” plan for making healthier choices when cravings hit. “If you’re hungry or fixated on food while shopping, [tell yourself that] you’ll grab a piece of fruit, a handful of protein-packed almonds or a similar low-calorie snack,” Vohs says. 3. Thinking you’re fat makes you heavier. When Harvard researchers told women working in hotels that their activity satisfied the U.S. surgeon general’s recommendation for an active lifestyle, they lost weight and lowered their blood pressure, BMI and waist-to-hip ratio. Women performing the same tasks who weren’t told their activity qualified didn’t lose weight. A few even gained a couple pounds (over 30 days). The researchers speculate that mindset determined weight loss. “If your mind is in a healthy place, your body will follow,” says researcher Ellen Langer, Ph.D., a Harvard professor of psychology. And your brain may be more apt to keep your body’s levels of hormones that affect weight, such as leptin, at optimum levels. The fix: Convince yourself you’re active. To drive home just how energetic you are, keep a 24-hour log of how much you’re moving. Jot down things like trips from your desk to the bathroom or packages you wrap. You just might be pleased at how much you actually move during a typical day! 4. Ditch your scale. Contrary to what many women think, it’s not always best to know your weight. In fact, it’s a sure-fire way to psych yourself out of getting fit. “Most women have a strong emotional reaction to discovering they haven’t lost as much as they want,” says Jessica Setnick, M.S., R.D., a Dallas eating disorder specialist. To ease their disappointment, they turn to comfort food. The fix: Although some studies show frequent weigh-ins help dieters stay on track, weight-loss experts say they’re not for everyone. That's because the scale isn’t always accurate and your numbers can fluctuate from other factors – like muscle tone, water weight and your menstrual cycle. So hide the scale and use your clothes to gauge your progress, Setnick says. Focus on fit, feel and hang, not what you weigh. “Pay attention to the need to go down a jean size or two,” Setnick says. “Or having extra slack in your clothes.” And only allow yourself to step on the scale occasionally: bi-monthly or even monthly. That increases your likelihood of getting noticeable results so you’ll be more encouraged to stick with your diet, says Setnick. 5. Stump your sense of smell. Just smelling food can slow production of leptin, the protein hormone that plays a key role in relaying signals between your brain and stomach that you’re full, according to a 2008 Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Department of Medicine study. That means, smelling something tasty like bacon, popcorn or freshly baked chocolate cookies can make you hungry – even if you just had a meal. The fix: If you hit the vending machine every time a co-worker nukes microwave popcorn, stop and ask yourself if you felt hungry before you smelled the corn popping. If not, don’t give in to temptation, Setnick says. And to keep from pigging out when baking holiday cookies, keep grapefruit essential oil on hand. Sniffing it will suppress your appetite long enough for leptin levels to return to normal, according to a 2007 study by Japanese researchers at Osaka University. 6. Time your antioxidants. Based on a July 2009 study, researchers at the Yale School of Medicine think they’ve found one reason your stomach and brain aren’t in sync when it comes to the amount you eat. They believe antioxidants can play a role in weight control because your brain’s appetite center depends on oxygen-free radicals (molecules associated with aging that everyone has) to keep going. “Minute-by-minute appetite control is regulated by free radicals,” says co-lead researcher Sabrina Diano, Ph.D., associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology & reproductive sciences and neurobiology at the Yale School of Medicine. That means if you rein in free radicals, you can suppress – or better control – your appetite. The fix: Add antioxidant-rich fruits and veggies (like leafy greens, carrots, berries and tomatoes) to every meal. Eating them halfway through a meal revs up production of the hormone ghrelin, which relays the message to your brain that your tummy has had enough. So have your side salad with dinner, not before. And make a piece of fruit part of your breakfast – but don’t make it your whole meal. Eating antioxidants on an empty stomach can ramp up your appetite. 7. Let go of the perfect you. The diet-deadly trio – perfectionism, not achieving expected weight goals and the stress of trying to hit your perfect size – raises the chances you’ll binge-eat, says Anna M. Bardone-Cone, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences, University of Missouri, and researcher on a 2008 study about the effect of perfectionism on eating habits. The fix: Focus on your triumphs. “If you hit the gym faithfully several times a week, pat yourself on the back,” Bardone-Cone says. Don’t beat yourself up about how far you have left to go, because that won’t melt pounds away. And if you’re tempted to drown your sorrows in a vat of chocolate, take a time-out. “Stopping to congratulate yourself on your most recent workout or pounds lost can be all it takes to let your logic catch up with your emotions,” Bardone-Cone says. 8. Fight brain fright. When you’re cutting back calories, your brain may go into a “fight or flight” state because it’s afraid of starvation. “Dieting stimulates and activates your nervous system, as well as an area in your brain called amygdala,” says S. Ausim Azizi, M.D., chair of neurology at Temple University, who has more than 30 years’ experience researching the brain’s impact on weight and diet. All that activity can slow production of leptin, leading you to consume too much. The fix: Eat regularly. Instead of 2-3 big meals, divvy up your daily calories into five or six small ones. You’ll keep your tummy from grumbling, which stalls production of ghrelin and lets your brain know to stand down. Are You Ready to Lose Weight? Losing weight is a commitment to diet, exercise and behavioral changes. You know you could stand to lose some of those unwanted pounds, but are you ready to make this life-long commitment?