As I pace my grocery store or shuttle through a restaurant, I can’t help but notice it. Food is everywhere. And while I enjoy a gooey slice of pizza like the rest of us, I also recognize a harsh reality.
Our bodies have adapted over thousands of years to make sure we could handle fluctuations in famine and plenty. But now, as we constantly sit on the plenty side of that scale, nature is working against us. An obesity epidemic is on our hands.
We know diets don’t work. But we’re not helpless, no matter how many endless high-calorie/carb food options surround us. There is something we can do to fight the bulge this coming season and stay at a weight that’s personally healthy for us. (If you’re in a rush, skip to the end for a science-based brain trick that gives all of us a way to easy self-control!)
The secret sits in the differences we see in the brains of healthy weight versus overweight people. The greatest insights here come from functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which can show us how the brain is working in response to taste, aroma and other food-related sensations. A 2012 study by Isabel Garcia-Garcia, for example, found that obese individuals had greater connectivity strength of the putamen nucleus in the salience network—which basically means that food grabs their attention more powerfully and this could lead to overeating.
But maybe the most interesting work is a 2014 review led by Kirrilly Pursey of weight-related fMRI studies. The review showed that obese individuals had more activation of reward-related brain areas (for instance, the insula and orbitofrontal cortex) when shown visual food cues compared to healthy weight individuals. They responded more strongly to the food pictures even when they were satiated! Not only that, but their response was especially strong when the images contained energy-dense foods.
The short translation of these studies is, either because of nature or nurture or both, if you’re overweight, your brain might be wired to make it easier to crave and indulge in foods that might pump up your waistline. And if your weight is healthy, you’re probably processing your food choices with the help of “higher function” parts of the brain, such as the prefrontal cortex, which plays a huge role in decision making and planning.
There Is Hope
The beautiful thing is, we can do something about this. Fortunately, the brain is dynamic—it can “rewire” and adapt. Neuroscientists refer to this as neuroplasticity. And it means that, even though you might have negative behaviors wired into your brain today, you’re not stuck tomorrow.
In fact, there’s already some research that shows how the brain can change when eating habits change. A 2017 study by Gaia Olivo showed that, after obese patients had bariatric surgery, their brains quickly changed so they didn’t engage in reward-driven eating behavior as much. And a year after the procedures, there was greater connectivity between the regions of the brain involved in emotional control and social cognition. Truly, we can build positive wiring for healthier eating habits!
Now, you don’t have to have a major surgery to change your brain. In my work, my colleagues and I find that people who think like designers and design their own behavior are the ones who are successful at behavior change. Like a photographer putting a different filter on their camera, they consciously shift their mindset to practice the behaviors they want, and iterate, or tweak, them until something works.
For example, I once met a designer who purposely grimaced every time he looked at bread. Eventually, he didn’t even “see” the bread anymore. He had trained his own brain not to like bread. And in the same way, a diabetes patient I knew would stare at all the sweets in the bakery case and think how destructive they are or what a setback they are to her efforts and good blood sugars. This practice made it easy to cut her cravings.
Secret Brain Trick
A proven way to rewire your brain for healthier eating is to use an if-this-than-that (IFTTT) statement. Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman asserted that the brain uses two systems of thinking (slow and fast), and that the brain will group things together so it essentially can have “shortcuts” for more efficient learning and decision making. IFTTT statements help your brain to group behaviors to get yourself to easily remember and do the better habit.
So let’s say you’re at a buffet or have a restaurant menu in front of you with lots of choices. You can create an IFTTT statement like “If there are lots of options, then focus on how healthy each food option is.” This will shift your brain into filtering for healthy foods, which is what brains from normal weight people do, and eventually, you’ll learn to ignore the unhealthy options.
I personally can say from experience this technique works. I’ve used it to train my brain to ignore the candy bars at my grocery checkout. Sure, there are still many foods that call out to me, but when I put my brain into this healthy search gear, I can get it to go for the healthy option most of the time. At the very least, I can be a little less self-destructive so I can regroup the next day.
Rewiring your brain like this isn’t an overnight process. You’ll have blunders along the way as new connections form and start firing more easily. Don’t beat yourself up about those—they are a natural part of the process. This strategy will work and slash those pounds if you just keep trying and get your brain to practice. Just play with it, like a game, it will get easier and you will enjoy a whole new vision of what’s great for your body!