Cut calories or learn to use your brain to lose weight? It may be both, with an emphasis on the brain part.
Behavioral therapy may be as important as caloric reduction, if a new McGill University study is to be believed. The study revealed that people who enjoy more success at weight loss exhibit more activity in the areas of the brain involved in self-control.
If that’s true (and it seems to be,) by learning to “switch on” your brain’s self-control center, you would gain a big edge in the battle of the bulge. But can that skill be taught, or is it innate? If it can be learned, one of the biggest challenges in weight loss might just meet it’s match.
“What we found is that in humans, the control of body weight is dependent largely on the areas of the brain involved in self-control and self-regulation,” says Alain Dagher, of the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital in Canada. “That area of the brain has the ability to take into account long-term information, such as the desire to be healthy, in order to control immediate desires.”
“The analogy that’s good here is smoking,” he said. “Cigarette smoking has been largely beaten in the Western world through a combination of strategies, and some of these target self-control.”
When it comes to dieting as a means to reduce weight, there is a certain yin and yang balance which must be well managed in order to be successful. When we cut calories in order to enter an energy deficit (necessary for the reduction of mass – weight loss,) the body signals the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is associated with motivation and desire. When it gets the signal regarding an energy deficit, it responds by producing hunger pangs.
You reduce calories, the body senses an energy deficit and recruits your brain to overcome your desire to lose weight by making you hungry. It all seems patently unfair, don’t you think?
Maybe, but you do have at least one ally in that big brain of yours. The lateral prefrontal cortex is on your side. It’s job, at least in part, is to promote self-control. It’s this region of the brain we really want to get revved up, then.
So dieting is like a brawl between these two different regions of the brain, according to Dagher.
“It’s a struggle, and we’re doing brain imaging of that struggle, the struggle between the desire to lose weight and the desire to eat tasty food,” Dagher said.
The study was a relatively small one, with a sample size of just 24 people. They were enrolled in a 1,200 calorie per day diet program at a weight loss clinic. Dagher and his team took a baseline brain scan at the beginning of the study. They followed this up with another at one month in and a third at 3 months in.
For the second and third scans, though, they tilted the playing field. “We showed them appetizing pictures of food and measured the brain response to these pictures,” Dagher said. The pictures stimulated the motivation region of the brain, since the patients were already in a state of negative energy balance.
Researchers noticed something which may be very important for weight loss success. Those patients who were enjoying success on their weight loss plan exhibited increased activity in the lateral prefrontal cortex. They believe this is because the signals for self-control were overriding the hunger signals from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex.
Was this a measurable example of self-control and willpower overcoming desire, motivation and hunger pangs? Dagher and his team believe so, as do other researchers.
Dr. Jeffrey Zigman, a UT Southwestern Medical Center endocrinologist, is one of them. “Those people who achieved greater weight loss had a greater activation of brain regions that are involved in self-regulation, which might suggest they are better able to self-control their food intake,” Zigman said.
He added, “It seemed to indicate that in people who regained weight further down the line, those areas of the brain were not as active. It does suggest that a person’s ability to activate those areas of the brain involved in cognitive control or self-regulation did better with achieving greater weight loss.”
Dagher noted, however, that stating that some people are pre-wired to maintain a healthy weight is an over-simplification of a complex issue. Many factors can influence the effective functioning of an individual’s self-control centers.
Stress is one of those factors, according to Dagher. He believes that stress may have impaired the function of the self-control center for some of the study participants who were less successful. “It’s possible people who had less success were more stressed. Events in their lives conspired to make it difficult for them to activate those brain regions,” he said.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) may well hold the key to unlocking your weight loss potential. It’s a treatment that can be used to improve self-control and make a weight loss plan more effective.
Smokers have been using cognitive behavioral therapy for decades. It provides a path to finding strategies to beat the urge to reach for a cigarette. Why not use it for dieters?
“People will say, ‘I tend to overeat in this situation.’ You train people to understand that and to engage an automatic system of response,” Dagher said. “I know when I’m stressed I eat junk food, so I’m going to have another plan. Whenever I’m stressed and I have a craving for junk food, I’m going to have a healthy snack instead. You can actually train people to automatically enact those sort of plans.”
Zigman said it could be more difficult than we think to incorporate something like cognitive behavioral therapy into the average weight loss plan. Finding a qualified therapist may be a challenge for some.
“It’s often the case, unfortunately, that those types of therapies are not easily available to people,” Zigman said. “It’s very difficult to make those types of changes, but this suggests it might be worth people’s while to try to seek out those sort of behavioral treatments.”
Dagher believes, though, that CBT may be just the ticket to helping you access the power of the self-control center and beat back those hunger pangs and the diet sabotage to which they lead. “That area of the brain has the ability to take into account long-term information, such as the desire to be healthy, in order to control immediate desires,” he said.
When the reward and motivation center responds to your caloric deficit with hunger pangs, the hunger hormone ghrelin is also involved. It signals the brain that you’re hungry. Leptin is another hormone, which is released to signal the brain that your hunger has been satiated.
Successful dieters are able to overcome the ghrelin “rush” to hold out for leptin to work. “Everybody who loses weight sees this change in leptin and ghrelin,” says Dagher. “It is just that some people, for reasons we do not know, are able to maintain their self-regulation in the face of that signal.”
While the mechanism in the brain responsible for exerting self-control in the face of the desire for food while dieting seems to have been identified, the issue is far from settled. As Dagher noted, managing dieting, weight loss and the competing brain signals associated with them is subject to any number of internal and external factors.
But it would seem that there is one more tool for you to use in the “battle of the bulge!” Next time you’re planning a diet, try adding some cognitive behavioral therapy.
Here’s a resource to help: The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Weight Management: A Step-by-Step Program.
While this is still not a “magic bullet,” it may be a powerful tool for those seeking lasting weight loss.
Keep the faith and keep after it!
- Neseliler, et al. “Neurocognitive and hormonal correlates of voluntary weight loss in humans,” Cell Metabolism (2018)
- Alain Dagher, M.D., neurologist, McGill University’s Montreal Neurological Institute, Quebec, Canada
- Jeffrey Zigman, M.D., Ph.D., endocrinologist, UT Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas and fellow, The Obesity Society