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Why Keeping Weight Off Takes More Than Just Willpower

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Willpower is at odds with visual and olfactory cues sensed by your brain.

A new study reveals why keeping weight off takes more than just willpower and what you can do while dieting to achieve better results to help your willpower stay strong.

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Old Dieting Joke

The old dieting joke goes something like this: Three friends meet at a party and are comparing their weight loss success stories after one month of dieting.

“I lost 12 pounds last month while on a paleodiet,” claims one dieter at the party.

“I lost 15 pounds last month while on a low carb, high protein diet,” states another dieter at the party.

“I gained 20 pounds last month from a sea food diet,” admits a third dieter to the small group.

“How can you gain so much weight from eating sea food?” the two companions ask the third.

“It’s simple,” he replied. “I eat food whenever I SEE it.”

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OK, a bad pun, but as it turns out there is some truth to why many dieting attempts fail—especially when dieters attempt to rely on will power alone to help cut calories.

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A recent news release from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, reports that researchers have found that specific neural connections between the stomach and the brain are correlated with weight loss.

The goal of their research was to determine whether scanning brain activity using an MRI could help predict whether or not a person was likely to succeed from a particular dieting regimen.

According to the news release, the researchers decided to test this on 92 obese volunteers on an 18-month lifestyle weight loss intervention led by Prof. Iris Shai, of BGU's Department of Epidemiology. The participants were examined with a battery of brain imaging scans and behavioral executive function tests both before the weight loss intervention, and then again after six months of dieting, which is when the maximum amount of weight loss typically occurs during a dieting program.

What they found from the brain scans is that their data supports one of the basic hypothesized reasons why many people fail from their dieting attempts—an over-sensitivity to palatable food cues.

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In other words, people with an increased neural response to seeing and smelling food succumbing to temptation to help themselves to a bite of whatever food is before them even though they “know” they should not snack on it.

"To our surprise, we discovered that while higher executive functions, as measured behaviorally, were dominant factors in weight loss, this was not reflected in patterns of brain connectivity," says Gidon Levakov, a graduate student, who led the study from the BGU Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

"Consequently, we found that weight loss is not merely a matter of willpower, but is actually connected to much more basic visual and olfactory cues."

Putting it another way, it’s like there is a mental tug of war where one part of your brain is actively processing your desire to be on a diet that leads to behaviors that support weight loss, but that this is in conflict with another part of the brain that is more basic and sending you the messages triggered by cues such as the sight and smell of food, to eat that food which is before you.

"It appears that visual information may be an important factor triggering eating," says principal investigator Prof. Galia Avidan, from the BGU Departments of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Psychology. "This is reasonable, given that vision is the primary sense in humans."

Help Your Willpower Stay Strong by Avoiding Temptation

The takeaway message here is that just because you may backslide on your diet, doesn’t mean that you are too weak-minded to have the will to succeed; but rather, that another part of your gut-brain connection is telling you to act contrary to your dieting attempts whenever it is stimulated by visual or olfactory food cues. Hence, the age-old dieting advice of avoiding temptation makes sense for achieving weight loss success:

Avoid places or situations where a lot of unhealthy food is available, such as at a party.
Eat a good healthy meal before going out or before shopping for food.
Practice mindfulness to prevent mindless snacking.
Find distractions that can get your mind off of food at the moment until it is time for a normal healthy meal.

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For more about how to make good decisions on what to eat, here is an informative article titled “Consumer Dieting Hack When Food Shopping For Healthier Choices” that can help you meet your weight loss goals when dieting.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of Ryan McGuire from Pixabay

References:

Weight loss success not all behavioral, also linked to brain composition” The Jerusalem Post news 14-OCT-2020.

Neural correlates of future weight loss reveal a possible role for brain-gastric interactionsNeuroImage, Volume 224, 1 January 2021.

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