How to retrain your brain to resist addictive foods
Why is chocolate so delicious? And why is it so hard to resist addictive foods?!
No matter what your vice is, we’ve all struggled with resisting our favourite foods. For some, it’s chocolate. For others, it’s crisps. We’ve even met one person who simply couldn’t keep away from mini rice cakes spread with butter. Almost everyone who has struggled with their weight has a few foods that can be relied upon to wreak havoc on even the most carefully-planned diet.
We got the good people at The Fast 800 to clue us up on why addictive food is so hard to resist, and how you can retrain your brain to ignore that compulsive urge to eat.
Why are some foods so hard to resist?
Aside from being a source of immense frustration (and being delicious), these addictive foods also share another feature: all of them contain a ratio of two parts carbohydrate to one part fat.
The science backs this up. In 2015, researchers from the University of Michigan1 took 120 students, offered them a choice of 35 different foods, and asked them to fill in the Yale Food Addiction Scale, a measure of how addictive you find a particular food. The foods were then ranked from 1 to 35 by the students.
Top of the list of “most addictive foods” was chocolate, followed by ice cream, French fries, pizza, biscuits, crisps, cake, buttered popcorn and cheeseburgers. At the bottom were salmon, brown rice, cucumber and broccoli.
Here are the top addictive foods, broken down by fat, carbohydrate and calorie content per 100g
Looking at the foods when listed by content, it is striking that each one of them is made up of approximately 2g carbs to 1g fat. Which, it turns out, is the exact same ratio of fat to carbohydrate that is present in the very first food that we consume: human breast milk. In fact, milk is one of the very few natural foods that contains high amounts of fat and carbs all mixed together.
The infant brain is super-sensitive to experiences during early years, laying down neural reward pathways that last for life. It is not surprising, then, that the food that gives us our first feelings of reward lays the foundation for our later food cravings.
Some might conclude from this that there is very little that we can do to alter our hard-wiring. We’re not babies any more, and our brains are no longer forming their first connections.
But this would be wrong. A growing body of evidence shows that the human brain is a continuous work in progress: even in midlife we can remodel and reshape its deep-level connections, allowing us to break free from lifelong patterns of behaviour. And for a population caught in the grip of an obesity crisis, this awareness could quite literally save lives.
Here, we give a practical, three-step guide to retraining your brain to resist addictive foods.
How to retrain your brain to resist addictive foods
SWITCH TO A MEDITERRANEAN-STYLE DIET
Studies show that a Mediterranean-style diet can improve the performance of a brain region linked specifically to self-control.
The urge to give in to cravings of any kind – whether for food, nicotine, alcohol or gambling – is closely linked to a set of reward pathways forming part of the mid-brain.3
Signals from these pathways, however, can be given a “veto” by another set of neurons, closer to the front of the brain, within the “prefrontal cortex” or PFC.
In small children, the PFC is particularly under-developed. This is one reason why children struggle so much when they are not allowed whatever they want – as any parent who has dealt with a temper-tantrum can attest!
When the PFC functions well, on the other hand, we display the opposite of toddler tantrums. We are better able to focus; we have greater self-control, including control over what we eat; and we have greater mental flexibility. Together, these qualities are termed “executive function”.
In a review of a number of studies, a team of researchers at Trinity College, Dublin found that people who consume a Mediterranean-style diet – particularly one rich in extra-virgin olive oil, fish and fresh vegetables – tend to have better executive function compared to those following conventional weight-loss advice.
In order to conquer addictive foods, then, it is essential to keep your self-control in peak condition. And to do this, you need to look after your PFC. And to do this? Stock up your cupboards with fresh vegetables, fish, and extra-virgin olive oil.
You can find out more about easy-to-cook and delicious Mediterranean-style recipes on the Fast 800 website here.
Increased fitness leads to increased prefrontal cortex size, which makes it easier to make the right food choices.
As we have seen, the idea that the brain is an unchangeable, hardwired set of drives is false: A factor as simple as the amount of fish you eat can have a measurable effect on how it functions.
Exercise, like diet, is another easy way to build a brain that can resist the lure of addictive foods. Again, the science bears this out. In 2012, for example, a US-based study compared the fitness, executive performance and PFC volume (using MRI scans) of 142 adults of average age 66. The results showed that a high level of fitness, on average, correlated with a whopping 12.55 increase in grey matter volume within the PFC. That’s a lot of brain.
In 2011, a study even showed that exercise can even reverse loss of brain matter in later life. These kinds of results are especially important, as they support the conclusion that that exercise builds a better brain – not the other way around.
Remember, to get fitter, you don’t have to exhaust yourself training for a marathon, or squeeze into neon lycra. The key is to find an activity that you enjoy enough to take part in at least three times each week.
As well as following a structured programme of exercise, you can also improve your heart and lung function by increasing the number of steps that you take through the day. Here are some easy tips:
- If you take public transport to work, get off a stop earlier and walk the rest of the way.
- If you are working at a desk, take a short break every half-hour to walk a few hundred steps.
- Use the stairs instead of the escalator.
TRY TO LIMIT YOUR EXPOSURE TO STRESS
Stress measurably reduces your brain’s ability to resist addictive foods and those unhealthy, tempting snacks.
To make it easier to choose healthy foods, try three simple steps: Plan your meals in advance; sleep more; try mindfulness.
Studies of how the brain responds to stress have made an amazing discovery: The drive to hit the junk when you are under pressure has its roots in brain pathways that are as real as anything else in your body. Junk food truly does become more attractive to us when we are stressed.
The sight of junk food, when we are stressed, is an obesity-trap. Modern life, however, drives us relentlessly towards its jaws. Big Food uses expert psychologists and marketers to ensure that we are presented with alluring displays of obesity-causing foods, right when our defences are at their lowest – when we’re stressed on a long journey, or travelling home from a hard day at work, or out and about with tired and irritable children.
We’re not going to be able to close down the food industry; neither can we create for ourselves miraculously stress-free lives. However, there are some simple and practical steps you can take that can help to protect you from choosing junk, and back towards health.
Plan your meals
How many times have you woken up and decided – “today is the day I am going to impulse-buy a heap of junk food”?
The chances are – never. When we succumb to eating badly, it is almost always because we have been caught out when hungry, and temptation was there. The good news, though, is that with a bit of planning you can make sure that these occasions happen less often. At The Fast 800, for example, we have focused on meal plans for real people, in the real world. Our recipes are easy to shop for and prepare, and are also designed, whenever possible, to keep in the fridge for a packed lunch the next day.
You’ll be surprised by how little effort it actually takes to plan and prepare healthy food, and how quickly you learn to resist addictive foods. The food industry is going to have to work harder – a lot harder – to catch you out.
- Account of study taken from Mosley, M. (2019), Short Books: London, ‘The Fast 800’ p71 (ebook version)
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27890688, cited in https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(19)30022-1
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29496487, cited in https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(19)30022-1
About The Fast 800
The Fast 800 is an innovative approach to healthy living and weight loss based on the latest scientific research. Developed in conjunction with Dr Michael Mosley, the online programme is for those that need more support and guidance for achieving long lasting health.