Can't Diet? We're Hard-Wired to Eat Junk Food

(Image credit: Sergey Galushko | Dreamstime)

If you have trouble abstaining from sweets and junk food during a diet, it might not be entirely your fault.

To some degree, your brain may be wired to work against you, particularly in environments where junk food is abundant, researchers say. This makes dieting understandably difficult.

"The brain is not really set up well to handle food in a way that would promote weight loss," said Brad Appelhans, clinical psychologist and obesity researcher at Rush University in Chcago. "In the current environment, the brain's ability to inhibit eating is continually being tested," Appelhans said.

The idea that obese people are overweight by choice is stigmatizing to patients and not helpful in terms of motivating them to lose weight, Appelhans said.

In the August issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, Appelhans and his colleagues propose a new way to counsel dieters. People should be informed about the processes taking place in their brain that may make them vulnerable to overeating , they say. Then, strategies can be suggested that may help counter these vulnerabilities.

"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,” Appelhans said.

Your brain on food

Some people's brains are more sensitive to food than others, providing a greater motivation to eat, Appelhans said.

"The tastes and textures of food are a stronger influence on the amount of food eaten for those folks," Appelhans said.

And research has shown that obese people's brains release less dopamine in response to food than others. Dopamine is a chemical responsible for signaling rewards in the brain.

"So to get the same dopamine activation, they need a bigger dose of food," Appelhans said.

The ability to suppress or avoid cravings for junk food is, in large part, controlled by the brain's prefrontal cortex. Differences in the prefrontal cortex may result in a decreased ability to inhibit eating, Appelhans said. Stress can also disrupt the brain mechanism responsible for inhibitory control and promote over-eating.

And we all have a tendency to prefer immediate rewards over future rewards, Appelhans said. Weight loss intrinsically requires choosing delayed rewards (such as health benefits) over immediate rewards (such as that delicious slice of chocolate cake).

What to do

The researchers recommend the following strategies for dieters:

  • Place fatty foods out of sight in your home or workplace to prevent activation of your brain's rewards circuitry.
  • Practice stress management techniques, to avoid eating in response to stress.
  • Avoid buffets, as they challenge inhibitory control in the brain.
  • Focus on short-term goals, such as reducing your daily calorie intake by a certain amount or cooking a healthy dinner three times a week.

Pass it on: To a certain extent, your brain is wired to work against you during a diet.

Follow MyHealthNewsDaily staff writer Rachael Rettner on Twitter @RachaelRettner. Like MyHealthNewsDaily on Facebook.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.