Using your brain to lose weight

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Weight loss is tough. Period. And it’s complicated at first, and discouraging. What to eat, when to eat, how much to eat. Anyone who has ever tried to improve their diet for the sake of losing weight knows it’s not easy.

There are no brainers. Broccoli is healthier than a cookie. We know the facts. We can talk about sugar, fat, gluten, antioxidants all day long but a cookie still tastes damn good and you want to eat it. That’s one component of weight loss programs that isn’t taken into consideration.

Nutrition knowledge is important, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. The real secret is understanding your behaviours and motivations at their roots, and using this information to have a meaningful impact on your health. In this sense, good health starts in your brain, not on your plate.

Willpower is a Limited Resource

The first thing to accept is that we don’t have as much control over our food choices as we assume. There is a belief that we can just draw upon our mighty willpower when needed and order up a salad instead of a burger and failure to do so shows weakness and is our own fault. Self control is not something to simply be turned and off like a switch. It’s part of the decision making process, and particularly when it comes to food, is much more complex.

Approximately 20 percent of the calories we expend daily are used by our brains. Because brain activity is so costly, things like self-control and decision making cannot be relied on indefinitely. As a result, willpower is a limited resource. Like a muscle, willpower becomes fatigued when exercised too frequently. All the decisions you make throughout the day deplete your willpower, and when you start running out of steam your ability to choose healthy food over more convenient food rapidly diminishes. Ironically, increasing your blood sugar can help restore willpower to some extent. But finding a healthy way to raise blood sugar in a state of depleted willpower can pose quite the dilemma. Tired brains find it much easier to just grab a cookie.

The way our brains cope with the willpower conundrum is to automate as much of our decision making as possible. It does this by creating habits. Habits are specific behaviours that occur in response to a trigger or cue. They are also always associated with some kind of gratification, which in turn reinforces and strengthens the trigger. For example, a buzz in your pocket is a cue to reach down, grab your phone, pull it out, and glance at the screen. The information you see causes a bit of dopamine to be released in the reward center of your brain. We humans love novelty, which is why most of us have a reflexive response to checking our mobile devices when we receive a notification. This is how habits are born.

Once established, habits occur automatically without expending any willpower or mental effort. Scientists have estimated that up to 90 percent of our daily food decisions occur as a result of habits. This saves our brain energy for more difficult decisions where habits cannot be used.

How Can this Knowledge Help Us Lose Weight?

For one thing, it shows that willpower is not particularly reliable as a means to achieve lasting weight loss, and we’re better off spending our efforts creating healthy habits.

It also teaches us that any habit we wish to develop needs to impart a meaningful reward in order for it to stick. You can probably guess that some vague promise of future thinness is not sufficient – the reward for any habit needs to be immediate and tangible. This means that in order to achieve longterm weight control you need to find healthy foods you actually enjoy eating, physical activities you like doing, and spend your time making these as convenient and accessible as possible.

Fabulous news, right? Using willpower for restrictive dieting is difficult and incredibly unpleasant. We can all let out a collective sigh of relief that it doesn’t actually work. To achieve true success in health and weight loss, we’re better off quitting diets altogether and focusing on building healthy habits we enjoy. Try starting with something as simple as breakfast. Granola with raisins and blueberries over protein yogurt or coconut milk only takes two minutes to prepare and is absolutely delicious. Invest in a Jawbone Up and challenge yourself to reach 10,000 steps per day, to meet sleep goals, to track your calories each day. Setting and achieving an attainable goal is a very powerful reward, and is one of the reasons so many people love videogames.

Since our brains are easily overwhelmed, don’t try to develop too many habits at once. Work on just two or three habits at a time, and build from there. Habits take anywhere from two weeks to six months to take root, but on average about two months. Start with the easiest ones and work your way up. Once you’ve built enough good habits, your health will take care of itself.

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6 responses to “Using your brain to lose weight

  1. Something I found today: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20130522-why-you-might-prefer-more-pain

    The tl;dr is that the overall experience of something is highly determined by how it ends – which explains the saying “ending on a high note”. While this shouldn’t be over-interpreted, I think it could be used to help building healthy habits.

    E.g. if you’re not used to eating healthy meals, plan the first meals such that they end with something you would consider very tasty, even if its technically unhealthy. And since meals aren’t pain experiments, eventually the good feeling from the treat will carry over to the whole of the meal and make the treat unnecessary.

    Just a random thought.

    • Not sure I agree entirely. I like ending on a high note, but I still think it should be something healthy. Otherwise, what’s the point? It almost seems self-defeating.

      • To motivate repeating the experience often enough that it becomes pleasurable all by itself, while phasing out the bribe.

        But yes, I haven’t completely thought this through, so I may be over-optimistic or way off here.

        • Or you may be completely right. I’m only speaking from my own personal experience. I know how weak I was while trying to form habits. If I had let myself indulge I would’ve completely derailed from the endeavour.

    • The high note doesn’t always have to be food itself. When food becomes something necessary, you sometimes consider eating a distraction of sorts when you’re preoccupied. Smokers smoke. Snackers snack. Books, games, and music did it for me early on. Prepare what you FEEL is enough and just eat that. After I developed a routine – or just got used to what portions my body could handle of what I ate, it got easy. Don’t let what you are consuming be dictated by just your stomach. Good luck.

  2. I love how you talk about willpower being a limited resource. My psychology professor told our class that when we were talking about study skills and the message has stuck with me ever since! Habits are hard to make and you can’t just use your sheer will to change yourself in one day…

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