As dietitians, we are taught to educate clients about what’s in food, then make specific recommendations for weight loss based on that individual’s goals. Unfortunately, even clients who are very motivated and educated fail to resist the temptation of tasty high calorie foods, despite knowing they aren’t good for them. Is there hope?
Researchers at Rush University believe so. In this month’s issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, a research article discusses three processes in the brain and how these can play a role in behavioral change related to obesity and overeating.
Recent research has shown that tasty or pleasurable food can easily override the body’s control over energy balance, leading to overeating despite not being hungry. I’ve experienced this myself when baking homemade chocolate chip cookies. I may not be hungry, but the smell from the oven paired with my memories of the chewy goodness that lies inside each cookiedrives me to eat for pleasure. Driving by the smell of a fast food restaurant can stimulate the same behavior.
The mesolimbic system in the brain (involving dopamine) has been linked to food rewards. What can we do to help?
Limit the impact of the reward by:
- Shopping with a grocery list (no add ons!)
- Use online grocer that delivers meals, if available in your area
- Plan meals in advance – Try Good Measure Meals 7 day plan providing 3 meals per day
Remove cues from your environment:
- Reroute your commute to avoid the fast food drive thru
- Instead of baking desserts for parties, offer to bring a healthy dish full of veggies
- Keep tempting foods out of your home
Researchers have proposed that “willpower” over eating is controlled by the prefrontal cortex (PFC) in the brain, an area important for self-control, planning and goal-directed behaviors. When dieters were asked to choose between pairs of 50 food items varying in taste and healthiness, those who consistently choose health over taste had more activation in the PFC area of the brain. Other studies have shown that greater activation in the PFC is associated with reduced body fat, decreased food cravings and weight loss. Although the PFC plays a role is controlling our intake of unhealthy foods, other factors, like stress and environment can easily disrupt this control system.
Knowing this, what can we do?
- Avoid situations that make willpower difficult to control, such as buffets and restaurants with few healthy options
- Keep high calorie foods out of reach in stressful situations. Increase exercise or seek counseling to help manage stress rather than turning to food.
Humans tend to prefer short-term gratification over long term rewards. This explains why we often give into temptation despite knowing the long term consequences and why the immediate high from smoking or eating a “treat” win out sometimes. To put it simply, weight loss requires consistently choosing long term reward (weight loss over 6-12 months) over short term gratification of food (i.e. brownie sundae).
What can we do to help choose long term results over short term pleasure?
- Focus on short term goals. Set a daily goal for food intake instead of a 6 month weight loss goal. For example, today I will limit my calories to 1400, or I will limit my calories at each meal to 400.
- Have a plan to eat healthy food in advance to avoid the temptation of convenience foods. A 7 day Good Measure Meals plan keeps your refrigerator full of healthy options – no excuses!
What behaviors have helped you be successful in reaching your goals? Please share your success stories with us!