Maintaining a healthy weight is an important part of overall health. But for some, weight loss can be a struggle. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that 56.4% of women (and 41.7%) of men tried to lose weight over a three-year period. The same study found that the most popular methods to lose weight included:
- Exercising more (63%)
- Eating fewer calories (63%)
- Eating more fruits and vegetables (50%)
- Drinking more water (45%)
- Eating less junk food or fast food (42%)
Turns out these approaches may not be the most effective for some people trying to lose weight. Several different studies point to the connection between how we respond to food and the chemicals our brains release.
Is food addiction a thing?
Research has found that some individuals have similar brain activity patterns when presented with food as those who abuse drugs and alcohol. (Food addiction isn’t an official, scientific term, however.) These studies have looked at brain scans to better understand which areas of the brain become active when a tempting food, like ice cream, is shown to participants. A few of these studies include:
- A JAMA Psychiatry study found that areas of the brain associated with anticipation of reward and motivation to eat lit up more dramatically in women who had scored higher “food addiction” scored based on a standard test.
- A Journal of Neuroscience study reported that reward-related regions of the brain were activated among adolescents when given a milkshake.
Another important finding in the milkshake study among teens was that teens who eat ice cream more
frequently showed less
brain activity than those who rarely had ice cream. This suggests that it takes more of a desired food (like ice cream) to feel a pleasurable effect from it –ultimately leading to overeating and weight gain.
Cognitive behavior therapy and weight loss
Healthcare providers encourage everyone to eat healthy, monitor calorie intake, and get plenty of exercise. For individuals who struggle with overeating, this approach may not work as well. Instead, experts suggest a cognitive behavioral therapy approach to help control the brain’s response to food. A study in the International Journal of Obesity
worked with 21 adolescents. These participants were shown pictures of food they had previously rated as desirable. Then, while connected to a brain scan, they were asked to use three specific strategies when looking at the food:
- Think about the long-term negative consequence of eating the food
- Consider the long-term benefit of not eating the food
- Imagine not having cravings for the food
Scans showed increased activity in the parts of the brain responsible for impulse control – particularly when participants thought about long-term positive effects. Researchers concluded that focusing on the positive effects of not eating a desired food can help limit overeating tendencies. What it means for weight loss
This entire body of research indicates what many suspected all along: It’s not as easy for some to lose weight – and keep it off – as it is for others. If you struggle with overindulging, try employing the strategy researchers found most effective: Think about the long-term benefits of skipping that second helping, sugary dessert or heavy appetizer. That may include losing weight, lower cholesterol, better managed blood sugar levels or even more energy. As always, don’t hesitate to talk with your health care provider about questions or concerns you have about weight loss.