Neuroplasticity and Negative-Calorie Foods

 Picture SourceAs many of my clients can attest, I am endlessly fascinated by the field of neuroscience and the useful applications it has in my own work. Perhaps you’re aware but it wasn’t until the 21st century that neuroplasticity, the idea that our brains continue to change and adapt through adulthood rather than ending in adolescents, garnered universal acceptance. Norman Doidge, MD brought the concept of neuroplasticity to lay audiences with his book “The Brain That Changes Itself.” I highly recommend it! One of the most famous phrases of the concept of neuroplasticity is “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

So what does neuroplasticity have to do with nutrition? A lot! And for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to talk about it in the context of negative calorie foods. Negative calorie foods are those foods which are purported to burn more calories through digestion than they actually contain. It’s perhaps one of the longest standing urban nutrition myths. J People like to imagine that eating these foods is actually a calorie-burning activity. It’s surprisingly common for people to appease their emotional hunger with these so-called negative calorie foods. You’ve heard the rationale, “why does it matter if I nosh on carrot sticks and celery when I’m bored? They don’t have many calories, so they aren’t going to make me fat.” Or how about this one “I can eat as much broccoli as I want, it doesn’t have any points.”

So what is so wrong about eating foods when you aren’t hungry if they have little or no calories?

My answer: calorie or no calorie, the neurons that fire together wire together! If you are genuinely hungry and respond by eating, it’s no problem at all. But if you are munching out of boredom, procrastination, anxiety, or any other emotional need you may be headed for trouble. Over time you are fusing that emotional state with the behavioral reaction to eat. The calorie count is a moot point if you are fusing certain emotional states with eating*. The goal is to fuse eating with the physical cue for hunger (most of the time) and learn how to deal with your emotions directly.

So the next time you feel bored, anxious, or prone to procrastination, AND you aren’t hungry- take a stretch break, step outside, or cuddle up with your pet before reaching for something to nibble.

Interested in other ideas to soothe yourself without food? Check out Susan Alber’s book. She has 50.

So what do you think? Is eating low-cal foods to tame emotions problematic or benign? I’d love to hear your thoughts.