healthy brain

You’ve gone on a diet because you want to lose weight to fit into your old trousers that have become too small. A very tempting cupcake for lunch comes between you and your diet. Are you going to succumb to the temptation or stay on track with your diet? Research shows that there is more than willpower behind this decision.

Brain activity is the key to your eating behavior

To get to your ideal weight and better health it’s crucial to avoid fattening ‘bad’ food and choose the leaner healthier options. According to the research of Peter Hall from the University of Waterloo, Canada, there is a part of the brain that can make it difficult to say no to food cravings. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is responsible for the lack of ability to say no to high calorie junk food. In his research Hall decreased the activity of this part of the brain temporarily in young adult women to observe how it impacted food cravings and behavior.

Brain image

Location of the left Dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex in the brain

When the activity of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreased the subjects had greater cravings for calorie-dense foods as well as greater intake of junk food. This is in accordance with other researches where the activity of this part of the brain was increased by scientists. With increased activity better control and less craving for junk food was observed. It seems that the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is key to controlling snacking and food choices. In other words if you are going to succeed in losing pounds and get to your ideal weight this then depends on the health of your brain.

How you make decisions about weight loss

The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is part of the frontal lobe which is responsible for executive control functions. It’s the part of the brain that is involved in making decisions and choosing actions. When you make a resolution to lose weight the frontal lobe, through executive functions, is in charge of your decisions and food choices. Executive controls make it possible to make the right choices in the present according to your long term goals. For example if you see a piece of pie your first impulse might be to take it and get the immediate reward. Through executive functions you might decide that this piece of pie has too many calories and that eating it isn’t in accordance with your goal of losing weight.

The brain, specifically the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is in charge of your food cravings.

A study published in the Obesity journal  looked with an MRI at teenagers brains while showing them images of high-calorie and low-calorie food. The teenagers were put in three groups – overweight, normal-weight and teenagers that had successfully lost weight. When viewing high-calorie food pictures the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex showed the highest activity in the group of teenagers that had successfully lost weight. That means that this group used executive functions more than the other groups when it comes to food choices. This could actually be the reason why they succeeded in losing weight.

The good news is that executive functions can be improved. Through computerized training, games and aerobic physical activity the performance of this part of the brain can be enhanced.

Control the cravings

Some of you might say what’s the point in dieting when there are people who physically have a better wired brain for weight loss. That’s the beautiful part of your brain – you can always teach it new things and help it make the right decisions. You can train your brain to make the right decisions through a process called cognitive reappraisal. This is actually an emotion regulation strategy. All cognitive reappraisal means is altering the meaning of a situation so that the emotional response to the situation is changed. Feeling different about a situation makes it easier for you to act in accordance with your goals.

man with differnet emotions

Research has shown that this technique is very powerful and effective when it comes to weight loss. In a study performed by S.Yokum and E.Stice participants have successfully suppressed food cravings. They have managed to activate inhibitory regions in the brain and reduce activity in attention-related regions by cognitive reappraisal. Several other studies have confirmed that food cravings and choices can be influenced cognitively. This makes cognitive reappraisal a very powerful tool for weight loss, and the best is that it  is easily accessible to everybody.

If you want to lose weight try cognitive reappraisal strategies

snezzing on food

Here are some examples of successful reappraisal techniques that were used in different studies :

  • Thinking of the long-term costs of eating the food
  • Thinking of the long-term benefits of not eating the food (e.g. weight loss, health, …)
  • Attempting to suppress cravings for the food
  • Imagining that you are currently very full
  • Focusing on the negative consequences of eating the food (e.g., stomachache, weight gain)
  • Reminding yourself that you can save the food for later
  • Imagining that something bad had happened to the food (e.g., sneezed on)

As you can see these are fairly simple techniques that everybody can use everywhere. You just have to choose what’s working for you and use it. If you are the visual type, you can even use pictures or write your reappraisal strategy on your fridge, phone, wallet,… to make it easier for you.

If you are going to choose a reappraisal strategy it is good to know that in the studies the positive strategies had better impact on the brain than the negative ones. For example thinking of long term benefits when deciding not to eat a bad food influenced the brain more effectively than attempting to suppress cravings for food. That’s why positive reinforcement and small battles won every day are crucial to successful long term weight loss.

Simply put all these research indicates that a healthy brain is the best solution to stop food cravings and make better decisions for your health. That’s why it’s so important to keep your brain healthy and enhance dorsolateral cortex functions. A healthy brain is the best defense against unwanted snacking and cravings in the long run.

Photo credit: human brain on white background, Abstract vector designed by Freepik