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Brain tricks for weight loss

Siski Green / 10 November 2021

Simple but sneaky tricks to get your brain to help you lose weight.

Prawns with chilli, herbs and garlic
Eating fragrant food is more satisfying, and research has found those who smell their food before eating tend to eat less

Although your brain is part of your body it can sometimes feel like it’s working against you – after all, it controls your food cravings and is what makes you feel weak-willed when faced with a slice of chocolate cake. So take control with these brain-based techniques to trick yourself into losing weight more easily.

Want to talk to a GP today? With Saga Health Insurance, you have unlimited access to a qualified GP 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Find out more about our GP phone service.

Look away from the sweet things

It might seem silly to turn your face away when you come up to the biscuit aisle at the supermarket but your body will thank you for it.

Your brain initiates a dopamine response when you view sweet things (largely because in the past, when you’ve eaten sugary foods, dopamine is naturally released). This in turn triggers you to seek ‘reward’ in the form of that delicious chocolate bar.

The dopamine response can also occur when you smell or even think about those desirable-but-disastrous foods, be they sweet or salty.

Choose your plate colour wisely

Believe it or not, the colour contrast between your food and plate creates an optical illusion that can lead you to eat more than you realise, according to research from Cornell University. The more obvious the contrast between food and plate colour, the less likely you are to overeat. In the study, people who served themselves pasta with tomato sauce on a red plate ate 22% more than those who ate the same meal from a white plate.

Prioritise fragrance

Research from the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago, USA, found that people who sniffed foods ate less than those who didn’t.

The theory is that the brain is tricked into feeling as though the body’s eaten when it hasn’t.

So when you feel hungry, don’t dive to the bread bin to make a quick sandwich, instead take a few more minutes to cook something.

By browning spices and onions, cooking rice and vegetables, for example, you’ll find that you’re naturally less hungry when you sit down to eat.

Put the salad away

Salad is full of goodness and makes you feel good about your diet and overall health… which is why you often allow yourself to slather it in high-fat high-calorie dressing.

Or perhaps your lunchtime salad makes you feel it’s okay to indulge in something higher in calories in the evening.

Either way, if eating salad makes you feel this way, it’s best to avoid it. Instead fill up on healthy fibre-and-water laden vegetables such as broccoli, courgettes and cauliflower, and lean protein.

You may not get the same ‘I’ve been so good’ feeling afterwards, but it will keep you feeling fuller for longer and stave off cravings for ‘treats’ afterwards.

Visit our healthy recipes section

Don't shop before dinner

Feeling hungry? Steer clear of the supermarket! People who haven't eaten all afternoon choose more unhealthy, high-calorie foods than those who eat before shopping, says a study from Cornell University. Even if it's inconvenient to buy your groceries after lunch, at least aim to write your shopping list when you're not feeling famished – and vow to stick to it. That way, you're less likely to arrive at the checkout with a trolley full of crisps and biscuits.

Quit the gym

So you work out for an hour or so, then treat yourself to a pastry and a large coffee afterwards? It could be that you’re making losing weight even harder than it has to be.

Researchers from Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine, USA, have revealed that people who go to the gym to lose weight often eat more than they would usually afterwards, negating all the good work they’ve put in.

Instead of going to the gym and viewing that as ‘being good’ make exercise part of your daily normal life.

Cycle to the shops, walk the dog twice a day, or take up an active hobby such as kayaking or tennis so it doesn’t feel like ‘work’ but more like play. That way you won’t need to reward yourself afterwards.

10 ways to get fit without going to a gym

Don't eat in front of the TV

Watching TV while you have your dinner can be an unhealthy distraction – and means you're more inclined to reach for a sugary snack afterwards. Diners who concentrate on their meal - and focus closely on the flavour, texture and appearance of the food – tend to feel more satisfied, according to research from the University of Birmingham.

Use more food to make two, smaller meals

Wasting food is not only a problem for your finances (wasted food = wasted money) it also feels unethical, given that there are plenty of people desperate for more food.

However, you need to stop eating before you feel really full. Most people say they are full when they’ve actually overeaten – a feeling of not being able to eat another mouthful. But if you think about how you feel throughout your meal, you’ll find that you’re satisfied before you’re full. And it’s satisfaction, not fullness, you’re after.

Try stopping every now and again during a meal, and take the time to really pay attention to whether you’re still hungry or not. And next time, cook more food than usual. Then halve it and have that as your serving. The rest goes in the fridge or freezer for tomorrow. That way, you avoid overeating because there’s ‘just a little bit left’ and you’ll save yourself the bother of making another meal the following day.

Once you've served up, put the remainder away – with a lid on it – before you sit down for dinner. If you put it on the table or even just leave it sitting out in the kitchen, you'll be more tempted to go for seconds.

Want to talk to a GP today? With Saga Health Insurance, you have unlimited access to a qualified GP 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. Find out more about our GP phone service.

Experiment with going hungry

While we wouldn’t suggest starving yourself, it’s a good idea to let your body experience hunger regularly so it stops feeling like an emergency when your stomach makes a loud grumbling sound.

So skip your mid-morning snack one day, or eat lunch or dinner an hour or so later.

Let your body get used to the feeling of hunger so that your brain doesn’t send you running to the fridge in a state of panic to fill that hunger void.

Don’t watch yourself eat (or pay attention to others)

You’d think that if you watched yourself eating in the mirror it would make you eat less, not more, but according to research published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, the reverse is true. Researchers found that people who saw themselves eating were more likely to then eat even more food afterwards.

The same researchers also assessed how people ate after viewing adverts with thin models or adverts not featuring people. Again, surprisingly, those who had watched the thin models ate more – nearly 50% more crackers than the others! 

They theorise that viewing and thinking about appearance, whether yours or someone else’s, is somehow distracting. So when you would usually feel satisfied and stop eating, you continue because your brain is too busy processing the visual information it’s received.

Chew your food for longer

Make each mouthful last longer and you'll significantly reduce the amount of calories you consume – partly because it gives your brain longer to register that the stomach is full. One study from Harbin Medical University in China found that people who chewed each piece of food 40 times ate 12 per cent less than those who chewed just 15 times. It's also a good idea to pause – and even put your cutlery down – between mouthfuls.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.