Food, brain chemistry and fat burning


This article was prompted by the observation that little has been discussed about the effects food has to the chemistry of the brain. Neglected importance of nutrition in this area is shameful, because proper knowledge of effect food has to physiology enables by choosing the right type of food to successfully manage energy level throughout a day while burning bodyfat. All the following is not just an interesting theory, but reality confirmed by my personal experience.

The functionality of human body is largely affected by good or poor eating habits. Waking up in the morning a new day with new challenges is waiting for us. To meet a new day and its challenges vigorously we need to co-operate with our body (brain), by supplying it with necessary fuel (food).

Human body produces certain chemical compounds called neurotransmitters, which participate in the process of sending orders to the brain, which in turn determines the energetic or fatigued feelings. This process can to the large extent be manipulated with nutrition, as human body synthesizes neurotransmitters from the precursors occurring in the food. It is known that human’s energy level is controlled by two amino acids – tyrosine and tryptophan. These two compounds are largely responsible for how we feel after a meal. The important question is which one of the two manages to reach to the brain first.

If  tyrosine reaches to the brain before trypthophan, then in co-operation with zinc, iron, copper and vitamins B3, B5, B6 and C the energy-boosting hormones – epinephrine (adrenaline), norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and dopamine, will be synthesized. Those hormones, called catecholamines, enable to use excess bodyfat for fuel, which increases energy level of the body and its ability to manage stress.

If tryptophan enters to the brain first, then with vitamins B3 and B6  “pleasure hormone” serotonin will be synthesized. Serotonin has a relaxing, even painkilling effect and is also precursor to melatonin, a hormone that controls the rhythm of sleeping.

This knowledge leads to the question on how to manipulate the race between tyrosine and tryptophan. Food rich in protein (meat, poultry, fish, and eggs) contains plenty of tyrosine and less tryptophan. The later is predominant in starchy, low-protein food like all grain products, which additionally launch the secretion of insulin that further supports tryptophan to reach into the brain. Based on this knowledge it can be assumed, that in order to control the energy level of the body, close attention should be paid to the food protein/carbohydrates content.

Although people are usually more energetic in the first half of the day after the night sleep, it is not advisable to consume food rich of carbs, that results decrease in energy level. The best choice for the breakfast is food rich in protein and fat and low in carbs, which ensures tyrosine and its assistants supply in the brain and provides stable long-lasting energy. This recommendation goes against conventional wisdom that plenty of carbohydrates are allowed and needed at the breakfast. Yes, carbs can be allowed, but they are not needed, especially in a modern society where breakfast is not followed by the physical work, which prevents increase in blood sugar and insulin level by instant utilisation of carbohydrates. Probably most people have experienced sharp drop in their energy level or even drowsiness followed a carbohydrates rich meal despite carbs are supposed to be excellent source of energy. This is caused by the over- simulation of serotonin production and rapid fluctuations in blood sugar, both of which can easily be avoided by appropriate content of food. The marginal amount of carbohydrates obtained from food rich of fat and protein is sufficient enough. As a bonus, body is taught to burn both bodyfat and fats obtained from food to cover its energetic needs.

Breakfast rich in carbohydrates determines the course of a whole day – satisfaction of energetic needs will be dependent on availability of carbohydrates and the brain will constantly crave something sweet. Breakfast rich in fat and protein ceases any cravings for sweet. Additionally it ensures energetic attitude and clear mind. I strongly recommend to test it by yourself.

Lunch can either boost the energy level or deprives what is remained. A lunch rich of carbohydrates, particularly starches, causes drowsiness, which would be wonderful if it is possibility to have siesta. Spanish are lucky guys as their eating habits and life routines are aligned! It is the starch, not protein content of the meal, which has major significance. The amount of starch someone could tolerate varies from person to person and as with breakfast, everybody should find his or her proper serving size.

The most secure option is to have protein (fish, red meat, poultry and unsweetened dairy), which contains all components necessary for synthesis of tyrosine, with non-starchy vegetables, fruits and/or berries, and plenty of cold-pressed olive oil for salad dressing.

Components of dinner should be chosen according to the same principles – if there is still need for physical activity or work, high protein-high fat-low carbohydrates meal is recommend in order to allow tyrosine to influence production of necessary hormones. In the case all the daily activities and workouts have been completed, it is finally time for high carbs starchy meal with protein and moderate fat, which activates serotonin production and enables thus relax and replenish energy supplies. However, person striving to lose weight can not allow that kind of enjoyment regularly, as the excess body fat has been accumulated by over consumption of carbs during a longer period. For them only one high starch dinner is allowed from time to time to avoid going nuts.

However, carbohydrates do not have only relaxing effect, but are also an important energetic substance. Based on that, wouldn’t it wise to consume fast carbs prior to workout? This could actually cause more harm than good, because of rapid fluctuations in blood sugar and insulin level, which in turn causes feeling of decreased energy level. Moreover, high insulin level inhibits glycogenolysis (breakdown of glycogen into glucose) and lipolysis (fat burning), and by that hinders energy supply to muscles during the workout. Thus for maintaining an adequate energy supply it is firstly essential to avoid overconsumption of carbohydrates prior to workout (consuming moderately complex carbs during lunch is allowed) and secondly, our body should be taught to use fat as a source of energy. Without energy obtained from fats it is not possible to survive the entire day having a low carbs breakfast and dinner. There is no need to worry about the high expenditure of carbs during the intensive workout, because the stores of glycogen in muscles and liver will be replenished with post workout drink and dinner rich of starch.

In the case of intensive training lasting for several hours consuming simple carbs and branched chain amino acids to prevent muscle catabolism during workout is justified. If glycogen stores are intact, amino acids are used to cover only about 5% of total energy need, but up to 3 times more if glycogen stores are considerably depleted. So it is wise to prevent this breakdown process. There is no need to be afraid of increase in insulin level, as the muscles use up the extra glucose immediately. Using complex carbohydrates instead of simple ones may cause flatulence. What about simple carbohydrates as a source of tryptophan? No need to worry, as they do not contain any tryptophan (amino acids are derived from proteins).

There has been a lot of discussion about the post workout nutrition. The general viewpoint is that approximately 0.4-0.8 grams of simple carbohydrates and 0.4 grams of whey protein per one kilogram of body weight in 10% water solution is appropriate for a fast utilization of recovery processes. But the post workout drink is not mandatory at all unless we train twice a day or the morning training follows the evening workout. In the case of longer training intervals there is no need to speed up the recovery process. It is possible to achieve the same result by eating ordinary food, although it could take bit longer.


In summary:

Eating high protein/ high fat/ low carbohydrates food increases tyrosine in blood, which causes increased tyrosine in the brain and as a result, proper amount of hormones which have energizing effect, will be synthesized.

By consuming food with high starch content (regardless of the protein content) causes increase of tryptophan in the brain that leads to increase in serotonin level resulting drowsiness and torpidity after breakfast and lunch, but relaxation after dinner.

The feeling of fatigue not caused by hard physical work, long lasting endurance training or more than one intensive workout in a day is caused by the mind not by the body. Body just reflects the state of the mind if mind is tired. It is possible to have complete control over the energy level of the mind and the body and eliminate any need for the energy pills, drinks and fat burners just by regulating the daily nutrition.


First published 11.06.2006 in Estonian (“Toit, ajubiokeemia ja rasvapõletus”) at

Translated to English in July 2008


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