5 Ways Your Mind Fools You When It Comes to Weight Loss

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Your brain has a devious way of tricking you into failing when it comes to weight loss.

Used to be we thought weight loss was just about eating less and exercising more.

Now we know there’s a lot more to it than that. One of the most interesting things we’ve discovered lately is that the brain isn’t really reliable when it comes to weight loss.

In a 2014 study, for instance, participants looked at snapshots of familiar foods and rated how much they liked each one while also estimating each one’s calorie count. Meanwhile, researchers scanned their brains.

Results showed that activity in the reward part of the brain was higher when participants looked at pictures of foods with higher calories. Participants were also found to be inaccurate in their estimates of calorie count, but to be willing to pay more for high-calorie foods.

In other words, we’re hardwired to prefer high-calorie foods, and to crave them at a neurological level as rewards. “Based on how the food has made us feel in the past,” said Trudy Scott, certified nutritionist and author of The Antianxiety Food Solution, “we anticipate these feelings again in an almost drug-like way.”

We’ve seen more evidence of how the brain can sabotage our efforts in recent studies on sugar addiction. Scientists have discovered that sugar can have an effect on our brains similar to that of heroine and other addictive drugs. A 2009 study, for example, reported that sugar “is noteworthy as a substance that releases opioids and dopamine and thus might be expected to have addictive potential.”

Turns out there are several ways the brain can trick you into gaining weight, or into deluding yourself about losing it.

1. Going on a diet feels like a withdrawal.

Why are diets so difficult? They put your body and mind through withdrawal symptoms. A 2012 study, for example, found that quitting a diet high in fat and sugar caused changes in the brain similar to withdrawal from addictive drugs.

Yes. It’s that difficult.

Symptoms included anxiety, hypersensitivity to stress, depression, and an increased desire for high-sugar and high-fat foods. (Give me that brownie, now!) Subjects even had higher levels of corticosterone in their blood—the stress hormone.

How to avoid these miserable symptoms? Avoid a high-fat, high-sugar diet in the first place, and if you are trying to quit them, get some help.

“The chemicals changed by diet are associated with depression,” study author Dr. Stephanie Fulton told the Huffington Post. “A change of diet then causes withdrawal symptoms and a greater sensitivity to stressful situations, launching a vicious cycle of poor eating.”

2. If you have a good sense of smell, it will trick you into eating more.

Scientists have found that the part of the brain that processes smells is connected to the feeding centers. Researchers from the University of Portsmouth used that knowledge to conduct a study on 64 volunteers. They found that people who were overweight had a more heightened sense of smell for food compared to slim people, particularly after they had already eaten a full meal.

Researchers speculated that this keener sense of smell could encourage individuals to keep eating even after they felt full.

The solution? Try aromatherapy. Peppermint is especially helpful at making you feel full after a meal.

3. Our brains are suckers for glucose—even more so if we’re overweight.

Researchers at Yale University and the University of Southern California found that when glucose levels drop, the prefrontal cortex—which usually helps us control our emotions and impulses—suddenly becomes very inefficient.

Where you might have been able to avoid that donut in the morning, if you didn’t get a good lunch and you’re glucose levels are down by mid-afternoon, don’t expect your willpower to protect you, because it essentially goes on hiatus.

Once glucose levels go down, the prefrontal cortex loses its ability to calm those urges to eat unhealthy stuff. The reaction was found to be even more severe in obese individuals.

“Our results suggest that obese individuals may have a limited ability to inhibit the impulsive drive to eat, especially when glucose levels drop below normal,” said study author Kathleen page, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Southern California.

The solution? Keep blood sugar levels as stabilized as you can. Eat more frequent, smaller meals with high-fiber items that keep you satisfied, and don’t allow yourself to get overly hungry.

4. Our brains process glucose and fructose differently—which could stimulate overeating.

We used to think sugar was sugar, but recent studies suggest it ain’t necessarily so.

Researchers from the Yale School of Medicine, for example, found that the brain processes fructose and glucose—two forms of simple sugars—differently. Glucose satisfies us. When we eat foods with glucose, it suppresses the desire to eat.

Fructose, on the other hand, doesn’t have the same effect. It’s not able to suppress that desire, so when we eat it, it’s almost like we’ve eaten nothing at all.

Researchers found these results by studying changes in blood flow to the brain after ingestion of glucose or fructose. Glucose reduced blood flow to those regions that regulate appetite. Fructose didn’t.

“Glucose but not fructose ingestion reduced activation of the hypothalamus, insula, and striatum—brain regions that control appetite, motivation, and reward processing,” the researchers wrote. “Glucose ingestion also increased functional connections between the hypothalamic-striatal network and increased satiety.”

In other words, the participants were more satisfied and full after ingesting glucose than they were after ingesting fructose.

Both glucose and fructose are found together in fruits and vegetables, and in table sugar, where they work together to keep the appetite in check. Fructose, however, is also found in common added sweeteners, particularly high-fructose corn syrup, which is prevalent in soft drinks and processed foods.

It’s no wonder, then, that sodas and processed foods have been linked with weight gain, if the fructose in these foods leaves us less than satisfied. “Fructose possibly increases food-seeking behavior and increases food intake,” researchers wrote.

Solution? When you eat sugar, eat the real stuff. Steer clear of processed foods and beverages with high fructose corn syrup and other forms of fructose-heavy sweeteners.

5. Sugar quiets stress signals in the brain.

The American Psychological Association states that Americans consistently experience stress at levels higher than what they think is healthy. And stress, unfortunately, triggers the brain to seek out sugar.

According to a recent 2015 study, eating sugar may quiet stress signals in the brain. That’s why many of us turn to sweet foods when we’re feeling stressed out.

Researchers gave women three beverages a day sweetened either with real sugar or aspartame. They then conducted brain scans to see how the drinks affected the women’s brains. They found that sugar, but not aspartame, triggered activity in the part of the brain that reacts to stress.

More specifically, the real sugar interrupted the stress response and limited production of the stress hormone cortisol, while the aspartame did not.

“The findings suggest an explanation of how, mechanistically, sugar may positively reinforce habitual consumption in people experiencing chronic stress,” said lead author Kevin Laugero.

We’d love it if we could crave broccoli or carrots when stressed, but that’s just not the way the brain works.

The solution? If you crave sweets when stressed, plan ahead. Have a good amount of healthy dark chocolate (at least 70 percent cacoa) or fruit nearby, or try other methods of coping, such as listening to music, taking a walk, or drinking a tall glass of ice water.

Have you noticed your brain sabotaging your weight-loss efforts? Please share your story.

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Deborah W. Tang, et al., “Behavioral and Neural Valuation of Foods is Driven by Implicit Knowledge of Caloric Content,” Psychological Science, October 10, 2014; doi: 10.1177/0956797614552081, http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/10/08/0956797614552081.abstract.

Krissy Brady, “Here’s How Your Brain Tricks You Into Eating Junk Food,” You Beauty, October 22, 2014, http://www.youbeauty.com/nutrition/heres-how-your-brain-tricks-you-into-eating-junk-food/.

Nicole M. Avena, et al., “Evidence for sugar addiction: Behavioral and neurochemical effects of intermittent, excessive sugar intake,” Neurosci Biobehav Rev., 2008; 32(1):20-39, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2235907/.

S Sharma, et al., “Adaptations in brain reward circuitry underlie palatable food cravings and anxiety induced by high-fat diet withdrawal,” International Journal of Obesity, September 2013; 37:1183-1191, http://www.nature.com/ijo/journal/v37/n9/full/ijo2012197a.html.

“Obesity’s link to sense of smell,” BBC, November 15, 2010, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-11755995.

Bill Hathaway, “To Ditch Dessert, Feed the Brain,” Yale University, September 19, 2011, http://news.yale.edu/2011/09/19/ditch-dessert-feed-brain.

Helen Dodson, “Study suggests effect of fructose on brain may promote overating,” Yale University, January 4, 2013, http://news.yale.edu/2013/01/04/study-suggests-effect-fructose-brain-may-promote-overeating.

Matthew S. Tyron, et al., “Excessive Sugar Consumption May be a Difficult Habit to Break: A View from the Brain and Body,” Endocrine Society, [Press Release], April 15, 2015; http://press.endocrine.org/doi/10.1210/jc.2014-4353.

Lisa Rapaport, “Eating sugar may fuel cravings for more by quieting stress,” Reuters, April 29, 2015, http://www.reuters.com/article/2015/04/29/us-health-stress-sugar-craving-idUSKBN0NK2AA20150429.

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story

Colleen M. Story, a northwest-based writer, editor, and ghostwriter, has been creating non-fiction materials for individuals, corporations, and commercial magazines for over 17 years. She specializes in the health and wellness field, where she writes and ghostwrites books, e-books, blogs, magazine articles, and more.

Colleen is the founder of Writing and Wellness. Her fantasy novel, “Rise of the Sidenah,” was released with Jupiter Gardens Press in September 2015. Her literary novel, “Loreena’s Gift,” is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Dzanc Books. She lives in Idaho. www.colleenmstory.com

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