Resisting the call of sweets and treats: Brain power is better than willpower
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By Andrea Holwegner, For The Calgary Herald   August 18, 2011

Do you feel like you know what you should do to lose weight but willpower has let you down?

Perhaps you can relate to Patricia, a 49-year-old nurse who knew plenty about nutrition and health. So why did her attempts to lose weight always fail?

When Patricia went to work each day, she packed a healthy breakfast and lunch, but mid-afternoon fatigue and hunger would set in and willpower would always let her down.

Although she vowed not to eat sweets in the afternoon, walking past the coffee shop at work tempted her with displays of freshbaked goods. Each time she gave in to the tasty treats she promised never to eat these forbidden foods again…until tomorrow.

According to a new study – published in the August 2011 edition of the American Dietetic Association Journal by behavioural and preventive medicine experts at Rush University Medical Center – you should focus on brain power instead of willpower.

Examining the way the brain controls eating behaviour in response to cues in the environment, known as neurobehavioral processes, can help with weight loss.

There are three neurobehavioral processes tied to weight loss and how much we eat:

Food reward

Your brain naturally has a strong motivational drive to find and eat tasty food.

It also intuitively seeks the experience of pleasure that comes about after eating enjoyable food.

If you experience higher food cravings, especially for sweets and high-fat foods, you may have a stronger biological preference to seek reward.

Inhibitory control

Your brain also has a varied response to suppressing the urge to eat high-calorie foods.

If you have found it hard to say no to tasty treats and high-fat foods, it may be because your natural biology has more powerful urges to eat than to abstain.

Time discounting

Research shows humans have a tendency toward immediate gratification rather than delayed positive results. When it comes to decision making about food, this means it’s natural to prefer the immediate pleasure of eating over the delayed health benefits of weight loss.

If you need to lose weight to improve your health, trying to follow the old rules that rely on willpower to eat less and say no to food cravings likely won’t work.

Here are some strategies that specifically tackle your brain’s genetic susceptibilities and the challenging environment we live in.

– Out of sight, out of mind

Keep your favourite foods such as potato chips and pop out of your house, car and work. Choosing to do this helps prevent the mesolimbic dopamine system in the brain from getting sensitized to seek reward.

If you love vending machine junk food or baked goods at the coffee shop, try leaving your cash at home.

Several of my clients have found bringing only a credit card to work has decreased their junk food consumption.

– Make a list

Another strategy that helps to avoid sensitizing the brain’s reward system is to make a list before going to the grocery store and follow it strictly.

Alternatively, shop online or go with a buddy who can help you stick to your plan.

– Minimize eating out

Most people find it hard to leave extra food on a plate or to dish up appropriate servings at an allyou-can-eat buffet. These environments challenge the prefrontal cortex of the brain, which is responsible for inhibitory control.

With regular travels being a part of my job as a nutrition educator, I’ve learned that I always overeat at a hotel breakfast buffet and do better when served a single plate of food.

If you’re at a restaurant you know serves big portions, ask for half your meal to be served and the other half to be boxed for lunch the next day. The trick here is to be sure you do this when you order rather than hope to leave half to take home.

– Go near versus far

To help you manage the challenge of time discounting, try using a nearsighted focus on your nutrition goals; it will serve you better than focusing on longterm goals. For example, focus on how many servings of veggies you ate today, rather than your long-term goal to lose 30 pounds.


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