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Forget Willpower: Dieting Increases Food Reward Value

food reward

That cheese burger looks mighty tasty, doesn’t it?
Photo credit: Pixabay

Have you ever started a diet and then suddenly all you can think about is chocolate ice cream, crispy French fries, and cheesy, loaded nachos? Don’t tell me you haven’t. Well, guess what? You’re not alone.

Research at the Oregon Research Institute has revealed that it’s not just a matter of will-power; restricting your calorie intake actually makes your brain want them more. By depriving yourself of food, you’re tricking your brain into thinking the reward for eating that food is greater, thus making it harder to stick to your diet. The amount of reward value you place on food goes up even more when it’s high calorie, appetizing food. Pretty cruel, huh?

What this means for dieters is that skipping meals and restricting intake won’t translate to long term success. Instead, focusing on small, nutrient dense foods spread throughout the day will yield greater results. I don’t think this information will surprise anyone. Starving yourself throughout the day is the easiest way to end up raiding the fridge, pantry, and every piece of food in sight come night time. But what this does mean is that it’s not for lack of will or determination. Instead of fighting the physiology of the brain, we need to work with it.

The lead researcher on the study sums it up nicely:

“The implications of this imaging study are crystal clear; if people want to lose excess weight, it would be more effective to consume healthy, low-fat/low-sugar foods during regular meals, rather than go for long periods of time without any caloric intake” says Dr. Eric Stice.

It should be noted that this research was performed on adolescents, which means we need to focus even more on teaching youth how to eat healthy and properly fuel their growing bodies, not let them walk down the endless path of dieting.

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