Can’t Resist the Cookie Jar? Blame the Makeup of Your Brain

MRI scans find clues to links between self-control and the mechanics of the mind.

By Matthew Kadey, MS, RD on Feb 11, 2019

It appears that the way our brains are hardwired can play a big role in eating habits and long-term weight loss success, according to research published in the October 2018 issue of Cell Metabolism. In the study, Canadian researchers ran MRI brain scans on 24 people while showing them images of different foods. Participants then began a 1,200-calorie-a-day diet in a weight loss clinic.

Analysis of the brain scans focused on regions related to food intake, including the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is linked with self-regulation, and the ventral medial prefrontal cortex, involved in motivation, desire and value. Brain activity response to the food images was tested again after people had been following the diet for 1 month and then for 3 months. Over time, stimulation of the ventral medial prefrontal cortex declined in response to images of high-calorie, appetizing foods like cake. More importantly, it declined most steeply in people who succeeded most at losing weight. Additionally, the lateral prefrontal cortex signal involved in self-control increased most in people who performed best in the weight loss program.

In other words, the amount of change in these brain regions was predictive of weight loss success in people following a calorie-controlled diet. These results bolster the case for using cognitive behavioral therapy, neurofeedback and other tactics to increase self-control in the face of tempting high-calorie foods. After all, finding ways to reduce the desire for nutritionally poor foods should be part of an all-encompassing weight loss plan that nudges people toward healthier food choices.

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Matthew Kadey, MS, RD

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