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It's all in the mind: weight loss research puts focus on the brain

By Colin Ricketts - 02 Aug 2011 18:15:0 GMT
It's all in the mind: weight loss research puts focus on the brain

Weight loss could be even more of an "it's all in the mind matter" according to new research which suggests tackling the unconscious brain processes which drive people to over eat is a better bet than appeals to will power and self-control.

Researchers from Rush University Medical Center, say that three key neurobehavioral processes in the brain are key to obesity and are urging counsellors with patients who suffer from obesity to tackle these rather than fight a losing battle with will power in a "toxic food environment".

Brad Appelhans, PhD, clinical psychologist and obesity researcher in the Rush University Prevention Center and lead author of the article says current advice on diet and appeals to self-control simply don't work.

It also, says the study, makes obese individuals lose motivation because they are being stigmatised for their bad choices.

The three key neurobehavioral processes are: food reward, inhibitory control and time discounting says the study.

Food reward is a process controlled largely by the mesolimbic dopamine system in the so-called reward circuit and helps us enjoy pleasurable experiences. If your reward circuit is oversensitive you're more likely to fall prey to overeating and other addictions.

Inhibitory Control helps us to control these impulses and it is sited in the prefrontal cortex.

Time discounting is the human tendency to not value delayed reward: we want it now! This process is also governed in the same parts of the brain.

"Obesity is heavily influenced by genetic vulnerabilities and a toxic food environment," said Appelhans.

"However, counselors can help patients control their weight through strategies focused on the interaction between the brain and the environment, rather than the traditional approach of encouraging patients to simply ignore or fight food cravings and eat fewer calories than they expend."

In the real world, the team have recommended a number of strategies to those treating obese patients.

Tackle the environment by removing those unhealthy foods and you won't be testing the reward circuit. Take rewards out of shopping with a list when shopping which should be strictly stuck to. Stress is a key trigger to overeating, so teach stress-management and relaxation techniques. Don't overtest the inhibitory control, so advise patients to avoid all-you-can-eat buffets and restaurants that serve the unhealthy food they crave. Ignore the bigger picture for a while and don't look at weight loss but instead focus on small, short-term behaviours like cooking a healthy meal three times a week.

The research has been published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association

Top Image Credit: © Karen Roach