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Why your brain can sabotage your weight loss

The Holidays are a time to indulge in our favorite foods and cultural traditions.

We meet, socialize and eat together. It makes us happy.

Afterward, we often feel stuffed, low in energy, and we often feel the need to lose some weight.

In theory, the formula for weight loss is simple.

We have to burn more calories than we consume!

However, what is easy and logic in theory is hard in real life.

The struggle with restrictive diets

I would say, we all know that we should let go of diets. However, we don’t know what to do instead.

Like most of us, I have tried diets, many of them. They were full of restrictions, time-consuming and annoying. And they didn’t work in the long run. It was just the idea of a fast solution that was so tempting.

I wanted to lose weight in the most effortless way possible. I knew some things had to change. But restrictions were not part of my plan. I knew I wasn’t good at it. But I knew what it takes to change a habit (more at ‘3 simple tips how to make and break a habit‘) So, I decided to focus on what I know and what fits my lifestyle.

A small change that triggered a chain reaction

I needed to find a simple achievable solution. I knew that change will take time and that I had to be patient. And I knew that I had to repeat my new small behavior for weeks until it became a habit. I also knew that my new eating habit had to fit my lifestyle.

I chose ‘not eating carbs after sunset’.

Now, I want to challenge you to think of a new eating habit for yourself. One that is comfortable and achievable to you. It can be eating only 3 meals per day and stop snacking. It can be eating only vegetables and fruits one day per week. It can be to stop drinking sodas. I can be whatever fits your lifestyle.


My simple decision resulted in a surprising chain reaction.

Consuming lots of proteins in the evening gave me the idea to lift some weights before having my proteins. I thought it would be useful to build some muscles. I knew that every new muscle I built would speed up my metabolism. I started with 10 easy exercises, went to 2 sets of 10 and now I am doing 5 sets before having my protein meal.


Why we struggle with hunger attacks and cravings

Interestingly, I had no hunger attacks in the evenings and my cravings were controlled by the idea of a generous breakfast in the morning. However, during the day I experienced hunger attacks and sudden cravings, resulting in eating attacks and uncontrolled indulging in whatever food was there.

What was happening?

What I experienced was the result of my own body trying to survive. A region of my brain called the Hypothalamus gave me sudden feelings of hunger. You might wonder why.

If we eat lots of sugar and carbon-rich foods, the sugar level in our blood increases. To deal with the sugar, our body releases insulin. Lots of sugar eaten means lots of insulin released. Once our blood sugar levels are back to normal some insulin is still left in the blood. This reduces the sugar levels some more. As a consequence, we have low sugar levels in our blood. 


High blood sugar –> insulin –> normal blood sugar –> left-over insulin –> low blood sugar –> hunger feelings

The Hypothalamus measures our sugar levels. If they are low it alarms our body. As a result, we feel hungry. Moreover, once the Hypothalamus shouts ‘we need food’ everything else in our body has to shut up and listen. No more rational thinking, no more unconscious thinking, only feelings of hunger and cravings for food.

How can we keep our Hypothalamus quiet?

Are we now helpless victims of a bossy Hypothalamus?

Not really! Our Hypothalamus is simply concerned that we could starve to death. And measuring low sugar levels in the blood is a warning sign. If we focus on keeping our sugar levels normal (without sudden ups and downs) our Hypothalamus keeps quiet.

The best way to keep our sugar levels normal is to eat (mainly) foods with a low glycemic index (GI). It tells you how slowly or how quickly foods cause increases in blood sugar levels.

  • GI 70 and above means that food increases the blood sugar levels quickly (high GI).
  • GI 56 to 69 means that food increases the blood sugar levels in moderation (medium GI)
  • GI 55 and below means that food increases the blood sugar levels slowly (low GI)

My best advice is to eat foods with a high and medium GI in moderation and indulge in foods with a low GIThis link gives you a selection of foods and their GI.


Find low GI food you actually like


Vegetables are usually a great source of low GI food. But there’s a problem. They don’t always satisfy our taste buds. For example, if I order vegetables in a restaurant I’m usually served steamed weakly-salted carrots, cauliflower, broccoli and peas. Now, I don’t like carrots and cauliflower. And I like flavor.

Most of all, we have to know which veggies we actually like. Here is a list of the ones I like. I’m not asking you to copy the list. Rather, take it as a source of ideas to think about the veggies you like:

Bell pepper, tomatoes, zucchini, asparagus, spinach, cabbage, eggplant, cucumber. I’m ok with broccoli and peas, and I love mushrooms (yes, I know biologically they are not veggies).


If you like flavors consider adding herbs.herbs

  • If you want to go Italian, consider oregano and basil.
  • If you want to go French, consider thyme, and ‘herbs Provence’.
  • If you like spicy, consider chili and ginger.


Other foods

Now, think of other foods you really like. Mix them with your veggies and get creative. For example, if I eat a full plate of spaghetti I eat high GI food. But if I eat a handful of spaghetti mixed with lots of veggies the GI of my good is lower.

Don’t settle for eating stuff you hate just because some ‘food guru’ says so. It’s your life and you have to like what you eat. Also, don’t get lost in details. Don’t obsess over it. GI is useable and understandable. It was without a doubt the best way for me to control sugar rushes and food cravings.


Let go of diets and focus on good eating habits instead.

Developing a good eating habit follow the same principles as normal habit change.

Chose a small habit change, practice it and be open for a chain reaction to happen.

However, the Hypothalamus can sabotage our efforts with sudden hunger attacks.

We can avoid these hunger attacks by eating mainly food with a low glycemic index (GI)

Eat what you love and what works to keep you feeling and looking your best.


Final thoughts

If you really want to lose some weight and live healthy, consider following questions.

Which small change in your eating habits seems achievable to you do?

Which foods do you actually like?

Are they high GI or low GI foods?

How can you mix them to have an all in all lower GI meal?

Which flavors do you enjoy?

Write it all down, start practicing it and wait for a chain reaction to follow!

You might want to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments as well.


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Hi I'm Ilka, a self-development writer and lovable scientist with a knowledgeable expertise in brain science. I help people realize the power our behavior has on our brain - and the other way around.

Carl D'Agostino - December 27, 2016

Middle of night sugar cravings are defeating my efforts.

    simplyilka - December 27, 2016

    Hi Carl!

    Hmm! These nightly sugar cravings are mean, especially if you really need to sleep. If the craving is due to low sugar at night you can try a high protein, high fiber, low carb dinner. If it is more of a habit you can try to have a snack next to your bed (instead of getting up) and then reduce the size of the snack every night until you don’t need a snack anymore.

Ella - December 27, 2016

Hey Ilka!

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas time and indulged in yummy food 😉

I loved your post. As always I learned something new. It makes sense that the ups and downs of the blood sugar levels influence the hunger feelings.

I think for me not eating after sunset is not the best way since I eat out a lot in the evenings. Focusing on low glycemic food is great. I guess I will try this for a while.

Happy New Year to you.

    simplyilka - December 27, 2016

    Hi Ella!

    I’m glad you liked the post. As I said, you need to find what fits your lifestyle. And focusing on low GI food seems to fit great in your lifestyle. You will find delicious low GI food in almost every restaurant. No need to munch on salad 😉

    Good luck and a Happy New Year to you too. Ilka

Mary Jo - December 30, 2016

Ilka – what I love about your posts are the simple terms you use, the conversational tone and the science to back it up! By reading and following your suggestions, this feels very doable. One more note on eating veggies: IMO fresh is best – no more mushy out of th ecan beggies we suffered in our childhood. Grilled, sautéed, baked, par-boiled and seasonings = delicious!

    simplyilka - December 31, 2016

    Hi MJ!

    I’m glad you liked the post and you see the suggestions as doable. That means a lot to me 🙂

    I totally agree with you about fresh veggies. When I talk about veggies I always consider them to be fresh. I should have mentioned it, though 😉 Nothing beats fresh veggies with fresh herbs.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. All the best and a Happy New Year!

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