I had the day off for MLK day. My plans were to workout, do some sewing, and clean out the pantry. But as I spent more time on the computer, the sewing went by the wayside, and the pantry has not improved at all. I am glad I puttered around looking for an article on cognitive behavior and its role in overeating. I read a great paper with some good research behind it. And here are 7 take-aways that summarize why understanding how our brain works is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
1) An increasing proportion of the food we eat is driven by the pleasure of eating it, i.e., hedonic hunger. It is not real hunger, like the kind you feel in your gut. Hedonic eating occurs when the brain reacts to reward or pleasure. This behavior is primitive (we share this with other primates) and is rooted in the reflexive system of the brain.
2) To stop from overeating, you engage in self-regulation. Self-regulation is the process by which your brain monitors what you do to align with your goals. This is all done by the brain’s pre-frontal cortex, the highest level of brain function in a human being. This decision-making activity is rooted in the reflective system of the brain (different from the reflexive system discussed in #1 above).
3) We are bombarded, however, by health deterrent stimuli. Our current environment promotes sedentary behavior and overconsumption. Read here, constant commercialization of pleasure-driven consumption. The paper calls this a “toxic environment,” which is different from the environment of our ancestors demanded physical activity and dietary choices were driven primarily by survival and energy demand.
4) Because of all the “toxic environment” stimuli, the executive function of self-regulation has to constantly suppress the impulse to eat. Here is an example: if your co-workers bring to the office a box of “hot now” Krispy Kreme donuts, your first impulse is to grab one. But if the impulse conflicts with your dietary goal, the executive function suppresses the impulse, and, as long as you hold that thought, your behavior adapts to reject the donut.
5) People with high impulsivity, are less able to delay gratification or make a sacrifice to not engage in hedonic eating. Unfortunately, successful weight loss, a delayed reward, requires constantly avoiding triggers and sacrificing the immediate gratification of overeating. This inhibition has been shown to be especially difficult for obese women and children.
6) The brain system in charge of suppressing these impulses to eat has a limited capacity. External support helps to shore up your waning capacity to resist all the temptations in your environment. Nevertheless, if the external support is lacking, the behavior change or healthy-habit forming is left to the individual and requires a higher burden on the individual to make healthy-eating choices.
7) The trick is to increase, therefore, the executive functions so that we can strengthen self-regulation and be able to say “no” to bad choices brought on by impulses. The paper suggests that increased physical activity is known to improve executive function. It improves mood and reduces anxiety and stress. Exercise, then, may also counter the impulse to overeat.
These take-aways helped me realize that choosing to workout today was the best I could have done to stave off the onset of impulsive eating that tends to happen at the end of the day, when the willpower has been exhausted. Although no study has proven that exercise assists in our abilities to make better food choices, there is a link, most certainly, between those who exercise and the habits that make weight loss a long term success.
Do you think there is a connection between physical activity and exercising self-control?