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How Dieting Habits Affect Your Brain's Ability to Curb Temptation


Raise your hand if you've tried to lose weight lately. That noise you just heard? That's the sound of phones being dropped all over America as people throw both hands up in the air. According to one Gallup poll, more than half of adults are trying to lose weight at any given time—and those are just the people who admitted to it. This constant pressure to diet may be leading to some serious unintended consequences for your mind. Chronic dieters experience changes in the structure of their brain, according to a new Cognitive Neuroscience study.

Thirty-six "chronic dieters, a.k.a. people who reported that they were always or often trying to lose weight, looked at pictures while having their brains scanned. When pictures of food were shown, people paid far more attention than when pictures of non-food items were on the screen. While that probably isn't too surprising—hello, food porn!—this next part is. Those who dieted less had fewer reactions to the pictures and also have more white matter in their brains. Those who dieted more often had less white matter in their brains.

So what does this mean? Is white matter good or bad? And is an incessant habit of yo-yo dieting wrecking your brain cells?

Woah there—not exactly, but it may be changing the structure of how your brain works and how it functions, ultimately making it more difficult to live a healthy lifestyle. White matter, often called the "subway of the brain," is the stuff that connects all the other parts of your brain so they can work together. It's the communication system inside your brain and, as such, is responsible for executive control functions like willpower, self-control, and resisting temptation. It's also the reward center of your brain. Damage it and you have a lot less of those crucial tools at your disposal when they really matter like when a double-decker grilled cheese is staring you in the face. (For the record, grilled cheese can not only be healthy, but apparently also improve your sex life.) 

"Individuals with reduced [white matter] integrity may have difficulty in overriding rewarding temptations, leading to a greater chance of becoming obese than those with higher [white matter] structural integrity," the study authors explain in their paper. They caution that it's too early to say for sure whether the chronic dieting caused the decrease in white matter or whether people with less white matter are prone to weight gain and hence chronic dieting. If so, the combination of the two may be responsible for creating a vicious cycle of gaining weight and trying to lose it through dieting. 

This doesn't mean that you should just give up your healthy weight goals. Rather it just shows the importance of taking small steps and focusing on positive changes while skipping dangerous crash diets that restrict you from modestly indulging in your favorite, crave-worthy foods.


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