Fat and Your Brain

Can you grab a few inches of love handles at your waist? Your brain may be shrinking. Especially the part of your brain that has to do with self-control and mindfulness.

Life often manifests as circles. One thing leading to another. Who would have thought that there might be a circle surrounding mindfulness, brain size, appetite regulation, and belly fat? But there is.

Let me present a web of scientific evidence that shows that “mindfulness” plays a significant role in being able to control the portion size of what you choose to eat. More mindfulness, less belly fat. The opposite also holds true. More fat, less mindfulness (not in all, but in many).

The bigger the belly fat, the smaller the brain volume (even in children); less mindful awareness, due to the smaller higher executive brain functioning, leads to more out-of-control appetite, and thus… more belly fat.

A vicious cycle of adiposity.

Fact #1: Mindfulness and appetite control.

Brown University researchers ran a study on nearly 400 people. They assessed people’s mindfulness with standardized awareness tests. They also tracked brain volume by MRI, waist size, and belly fat.

These researchers found that people who practiced “everyday mindfulness” —referred to as “dispositional mindfulness”—had, on the average, about one pound less belly fat compared to people who were less aware.

What is dispositional mindfulness? The authors of this study said it means being more present with your thoughts and feelings. Not being cut off from your neck down.

Of note is that these more mindful people weren’t meditators. Rather, they had personalities that tended toward more awareness. Or they had trained themselves, through various exercises, to have more intention toward awareness within the present moment. As Ram Dass might say about being in touch with yourself, “Be right here, right now.”

People with more awareness of their own feelings in the present moment were less fat.

Awareness tunes us in. We are aware of our body. We are aware when our bellies are getting full. We can stop because we can feel the stretch and discomfort. Our awareness gives us more information so we make better choices.

  • Awareness tunes us into satiety.
  • We stop when we’ve had enough to eat.
  • We get less fat.

This study then begs the question, the authors say, as to which came first: “unawareness” or “belly fat?”

Are some born with less awareness and then they overeat and get more fat? Or does a bigger belly, as it grows, play a role into turning “off” your awareness and control of your appetite?

Fact #2: Plenty of research shows that increased levels of belly fat actually cause shrinkage of the human brain, especially the gray matter, where appetite control lives.

A brain with less volume has less appetite control. Numerous replicated studies demonstrate this. The hallmark of science is that independent labs from prestigious institutions come up with similar conclusions.

This is the case with bigger bellies being linked to smaller brain volume.

French researchers investigated the relationship between markers of obesity with MRI imaging of the brain. They looked at almost 2,000 individuals—their brain size, body mass, and waist size. They found the bigger the waist, the smaller the brain.

This inverse association between abdominal obesity and brain volume is particularly prominent for brain gray matter volume. Gray matter contains most of the brain’s nerve cell bodies. It’s called “gray matter” because nerve cells have a grayish tone. Nerve cells that are coated with insulation, called myelination, are whitish. This is because myelin is whitish in color. Myelinated nerves make up a lot of white brain matter, not gray.

Gray matter controls more executive functions. The more gray matter you have, the better your ability to evaluate rewards and consequences. Gray matter controls muscle movement, sensory perceptions such as seeing and hearing, memory, emotions, speech, decision-making, and especially self-control.

Your gray matter is where appetite control has its seat of power… or falters as gray matter shrinks.

Dr. Debette’s research shows it isn’t brain atrophy (smaller size) that first causes dysregulation of food intake and overeating. Rather, it’s the other way around. The bigger your belly fat, the more your gray matter is reduced, and this promotes your appetite controlling you, not you controlling your appetite.Dr. S. Debette was the lead researcher on many of these brain/waist/weight studies. He tackled the chicken-or-egg issue of appetite control and belly fat.

Fact #3: Mechanisms of how belly fat shrinks your brain.

Central obesity, or increased intra-abdominal fat (fat inside the peritoneal cavity packed between organs, not fat under the skin known as subcutaneous fat) is unique fat. It acts like a separate organ. A nasty one.

Why? Intra-abdominal fat is different than the benign subcutaneous fat under your skin. Or protective fat around our organs, like around your kidneys or eyeballs.

Belly fat cells release pro-inflammatory molecules. These trouble-causing molecules “travel” from the belly fat to your brain, where they initiate and promote brain inflammation. This causes brain shrinkage. Especially in your gray matter, the home to your appetite control center. Less gray matter then alters your ability to control your appetite. With less, yet more inflamed gray matter, it’s more challenging to feel more “mindful” or in touch with yourself from the neck downward.

Intra-abdominal nasty fat is also known as visceral fat, or a pot belly or beer belly.

Belly fat, capable of releasing pro-inflammatory molecules, is being linked to an increased risk of heart disease, type-2 diabetes, abnormal and elevated blood fats, smaller brain volume, and poorer appetite regulation. And perhaps even to less ability to live mindfully (at least as much as one might intend).

This does not mean that all obese people are dumb. But their physiology is potentially working against their portion control will power. Research shows that for every additional inch on the human waist, there is a significant reduction in gray matter volume. Studies also suggest that if you do a lot of other things right, like exercise and food choices, you can minimize this damage.

These same French researchers report that abdominal fat distribution may be a more powerful predictor of structural brain aging than global body mass. Many cultures throughout the world today are seeing more and more obese young children. Belly fat even in children is being liked to adversely altered brain structure changes.

Fact #4: There are antidotes to having more belly fat.

Through fitness and cardiovascular exercise, these adverse brain changes in children can be minimized if not reversed. This screams that you must get your child away from the computer once in a while. Encourage them to go outside and run and play. Cardiovascular fitness that comes from regular bursts of exertion protects both your child’s brain and their ability to be in touch with their appetite.

Fact #5: Abdominal obesity is not the only risk factor for abnormal brain shrinkage.

Excess sugar intake, excessive alcoholic beverages, sedentary lifestyles, and waning sex steroid hormones are all linked to smaller brain volumes. McGill University won the coveted Kurt Richter award in 2008 by showing that seniors have smaller brain hippocampal volumes. Demonstrated by MRI imaging, this shrinkage could be healthfully reversed when the women were given estrogen replacement and males were given testosterone replacement. This brain shrinkage reversal happened rapidly, within weeks.

What promotes healthier brain volume?

  • Cardiovascular fitness and exercise
  • Hormonal balance
  • Intermittent fasting and/or caloric restriction (this has been shown in bariatric surgery patients as well as without surgery)
  • It’s now proven that caloric restriction and successful dieting/weight loss “re-volumize” the brain, especially the gray matter. And promote better appetite control.

A cycle emerges:

  • Less intention and mindfulness makes us more prone to overeat.
  • Regular overeating results in fatter bellies.
  • Fatter bellies increase your risk of smaller brain volume.
  • Less gray matter makes it harder to control your appetite.

This cycle can be broken:

Caloric restriction, exercise, hormone balancing, improved cardiovascular fitness, and even some nutrients like lithium and zinc, but that’s for another blog. Then:

  • Your brain volume improves.
  • With intention and mindfulness it becomes easier to eat more appropriate portions.
  • You lose weight.
  • Your brain size can improve.

The enemies of healthy brain size and appetite are:

  • Lack of intention surrounding mindfulness
  • Overeating
  • Sedentary lifestyle
  • Eating bad stuff (sugars, too much alcohol, processed and pesticide-laden foods)
  • Hormone insufficiencies and imbalances
  • Nutrient insufficiencies
  • Which all lead to inflammation, insulin resistance, resistance to satiety hormones, and a body that doesn’t respond to signals, so it becomes harder to be more mindful as our resistant physiology drives us to have less awareness.
  • Severe sleep apnea appears to worsen much of the above.
  • Obesogens: specific pollutants and pesticides turn fat cells more nasty and harder to lose. Foods and environments that contain obesogens when moms are pregnant make a huge difference. Moral of this story: eat as organic as you can, avoid plastics, filter your home air and water, especially if you are pregnant or planning to have a baby in the near future.

Fact #6: We tend to let our waist go as we get older.

Most people start to gain a bit around their waist each year in middle age. And around the holidays. Even a few tenths of an inch adds up as a danger to your brain volume and portion control mechanisms. When your love handles grow, ponder that your brain is becoming a smaller more inflamed mass, more in control of you than you are in control of it.

Knowledge is power. Get your brain and waistline buffed!

15 Sophisticated & Effective Steps to break the fat cycle:

  1. Have an intention to live a more mindful life. All unconscious behavior is exposed by greater consciousness, with the first step being to “intend” to become more aware.
  2. Be mindful when you eat. Don’t multi-task; focus on eating, chewing, and experiencing yourself from the waist down.
  3. When done, get up, wash your plate, start your other tasks, don’t linger and continue to nibble.
  4. Eating three meals a day, or two meals, without snacks so you give your digestive tract a rest, is optimal. Some need to snack for medical reasons, but most of us eat way too often and our gut does not get a chance to feel comfortable when more empty.
  5. Avoid inorganic, pesticide-ridden food in plastics. Try to buy food from farmers’ markets, not in plastic. Plastic adds to the fat issue, and contains obesogens. When you microwave plastic or consume food in plastic containers that were washed in the dishwasher, the food takes on these nasty fat foes.
  6. Reduce simple carbs, eat more diverse and colorful plant foods; sprouts are food probiotics on rhoids.
  7. Get your hormones tested and balanced by an expert. (There are not a lot around. I am available as a consultant to work with your team.) Listen to my podcast episode with Dr. Jack Monaco at Dr. Berkson’s Best Health Radio for an in-depth discussion of hormone balancing.
  8. Make sure all your nutrients are sufficient; get tested, as your hormone balance depends on healthy nutrient balance.
  9. Intermittent fasting a few times a week. There are lots of variations on this theme, so experiment with them and see which you enjoy.
  10. Exercise is as non-negotiable as brushing your teeth.
  11. If and when you have to sit for prolonged periods, “recruit” (tighten) your quads to break the cycle that creates more insulin resistance.
  12. Do daily gentle detoxes (listen to my radio show with Wendy Meyers at Dr. Berkson’s Best Health Radio)
  13. Do several in-depth detoxes a year (SEXY BRAIN has a perfect sex hormone receptor detox) in the book. You can do this detox or just do the intestinal sweep, but it’s important to gently “houseclean” now and then.
  14. Rule out sleep apnea.
  15. Get your digestive tract and/or stool assessed by an expert.

May the mindfulness gentle but powerful force be with you!



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