I’m currently in England, and the fall colors are spectacular against the dirty grey sky, heavy with imminent rain. Giant old-growth oaks, sycamores and horse chestnut trees have turned brilliant shades of gold, yellow and bronze. Their leaves fall like confetti as I drive under their long limbs stretching across the road.
These damp, dreary days are blessedly short — already one hour less daylight than in California. I’m struck by the tendency for people to stay inside, lounge around and eat.
To be sure, we are hard-wired to eat more as winter approaches. Shorter days and cooler temperatures trigger primal rhythms and, like all mammals, we respond by loading on extra pounds for the long, harsh winter.
Luckily, our frontal lobes set us apart from lesser apes and mammals. It’s here where we recognize the future consequences of current behaviors. In the season of gluttony, however, as celebrations of the year’s harvest and traditional holidays approach, we tend to ignore the impact and indulge. We reassure ourselves that, come the New Year, we will go on a diet.
But have you ever considered that the extra calories are not just causing your waistline to expand, but also changing your brain?
Many processed foods, including shelf-stable baked goods and fried foods, contain partially hydrogenated oils. The chemical process of hydrogenation changes the shape of the fatty-acid molecules in oil, producing trans fats. Unlike healthful fatty acids, these molecule meanies alter the stability of brain cell membranes, resulting in cellular degeneration.
In addition, foods with high sugar content cause the release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone, in the brain. But the more sugar we eat, the less dopamine we create – so we eat more to get the same feel-good effect.
But wait – it’s not all bad news.
We can learn to eat more healthfully, and as we continue to affirm healthy choices, we lose the craving for fatty, high-sugar foods. With awareness and a little moderation, we can navigate this season of plenty without any long-term damage to our brain or waistline.
When faced with a buffet fit to burst with enticing treats, engage your frontal lobe:
- Choose foods such as chicken and fish, which are both a good source of protein and relatively low in fat.
- Avoid deep-fried anything.
- Decide on one small portion of a delectable desert only after you have eaten some vegetables.
- Don’t stand near the buffet table. Make a plate that is 50% vegetables, move away and don’t return for more.
- Variety, moderation and awareness while eating will keep you functioning in the higher regions of your brain.
As for me, I’m going outside for a walk on a deep carpet of fallen leaves – even if my family does think I’m crazy.
Image credit: Jake Vince via Flickr (CC)