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10 Ways Your Brain Keeps You From Maintaining Healthy Weight

8. Overestimating your capacity to resist temptation.

Estrada Anton/Shutterstock
Source: Estrada Anton/Shutterstock

The wide availability of comfort foods in our modern world poses serious challenges for weight maintenance. People are more susceptible to the temptations of this food environment and consequently make predictable errors in judgment. These cognitive biases lead to craving and overeating thereby contributing to weight gain and obesity (Jansen et al., 2015). Knowledge of these biases can make the pursuit of weight-loss maintenance easier.

1. Food cues.

Food cues motivate eating even in the absence of hunger. For example, the smell of baking cookies increases one’s desire for cookies. The presence of a craving shifts the individual’s preference for cookies, reversing an earlier resolution to avoid the extra calories. One very promising intervention is food cue exposure therapy (Schyns et al., 2015). Food cue exposure aims to break the connection between cues and overeating by prolonged and repeated exposure to the cues that predict overeating without eating in order to extinguish reactions to food cues (Jansen et al., 2015).

2. Attention bias to food cues.

Attention bias is defined as the exaggerated amount of attention given to highly rewarding foods that motivate us to pursue them (Werthmann et al., 2014). Biased attention for food cues triggers food cravings. The opposite is also possible: Craving for food grabs attention for food cues. One solution is to reduce the visibility or availability of high-energy/unhealthy foods.

3. Working memory overload.

Working memory (WM) is defined as the ability to control attention and distraction (e.g., irrelevant emails or text messages). It is critical for maintaining self-control in pursuing a wide variety of goals, such as healthy eating and impulse control (Hofmann, et al., 2012). For example, WM helps dieters focus their attention and resist distraction. The ability to delete quickly irrelevant information (tempting thoughts) from working memory may increase the chance of achieving self-control goals (buying health foods).

4. Alcohol myopia.

Alcohol intake makes people short-sighted, and intoxication reduces resistance to temptation and weakens inhibitory control. As drinkers’ awareness declines, they lose self-control, so they eat or smoke more. Reducing alcohol intake is a common recommendation for participants in weight loss programs (Hofmann et al. 2012).

5. Self-licensing.

A prior virtuous decision can serve as a license to choose more indulgent options (Khan and Dhar, 2006). When people believe they have done something virtuous, they use this as an excuse (or license) to behave in a more self-indulgent manner. For instance, dieters may allow themselves to overindulge after a difficult exam. The use of self-licensing suggests that people may abandon their self-control efforts by using a justification (e.g., “I am on holiday”) that allows them to indulge.

6. Fall off the wagon.

This is a case when minor lapses snowball into self-control collapse. For example, if dieters eat “forbidden” foods (e.g., a single brownie) they believe their diet is ruined. They have bias thoughts, such as, ‘‘I’ve already blown my diet, I might as well continue to eat,’’ and start overeating (Herman and Polivy, 2004). This kind of thinking may help the dieter to enhance his self-esteem in the present by thinking that he will improve himself in the future.

7. Impulsivity.

Time discounting is a dimension of impulsivity in decision-making and can be thought of as an indicator of an individual’s cognitive ability to delay gratification. The greater a person delays his gratification, the more he may use reflective decision making versus being impulsive. Delay discounting is related to the choices of comfort foods (i.e., desserts and fried food) (Barlow, et al., 2016). A promising intervention known as episodic future thinking is shown to discourage impulsive overeating (Dassen et al., 2016). Episodic future thinking is a strategy that allows people to focus on future health goals rather than the immediate pleasure associated with a food choice that is highly enjoyable in the moment.

8. Projection bias.

Projection bias is also known as the hot-cold empathy gap (Wilson and Gilbert, 2005). The empathy gap is the inability, during a peaceful, cool, rational moment, to appreciate how we’ll behave during a moment of temptation (or in the “heat of the moment”). For example, people denounce junk food when they are not hungry or craving it, without realizing how much they may want those delicious cookies once they are tired and exhausted. The projection bias suggests that dieters routinely overestimate their capacity to resist temptation. As a consequence of being overconfident in their ability to resist temptation, they overexpose themselves to tempting situations. This is why addicts are instructed to plan for high-risk situations that can predict relapse, such as negative emotions, interpersonal conflicts, and recurring thoughts that the use of drugs will make them feel better.

9. Willpower depletion.

How do prior decisions influence subsequent preferences? Making a series of decisions that involve conflict (e.g., trying to impress others, responding kindly to a rude behavior, or wedding planning) lead to willpower depletion and a loss of motivation (Appelhans et al., 2016). So at the end of a long day, people have fewer resources to overcome the urge to consume a tempting snack than at the beginning of the day. This explains why most diets are broken at night. The state of willpower depletion can be reversed through rest or relaxation. Sleep deprivation may lead to a chronic state of depletion and poor performance.

10. Escape from self-focus.

Epidemiological studies suggest that depression can cause obesity and vice versa (Luppino et al., 2010). Obese people overeat to reduce negative emotions such as boredom, stress, anxiety, and loneliness. Consumption of comfort foods, often high in fat and sugar, can lead to improved emotional states. In other words, overeating is less about pleasure-seeking behavior than about psychological pain and deficits in internal sources of self-soothing.

By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons
Source: By Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons


Appelhans BM, French SA, Pagoto SL, Sherwood NE. Appetite. 2016 Jan 1; 96:268-79.

Dassen, F. C. M., Jansen, A., Nederkoorn, C., and Houben, K. (2016). Focus on the future: episodic future thinking reduces discount rate and snacking. Appetite. 96, 327–332.

Herman C. P., Polivy J. (2004). “The self-regulation of eating: theoretical and practical problems,” in Handbook of Self-Regulation: Research, Theory, and Applications. Eds Baumeister R. F., Vohs K. D., editors. (New York: The Guilford Press), 492–508.

Hofmann, W., Schmeichel, B. J., & Baddeley, A. D. (2012). Executive functions and self-regulation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 3, 174-180.

Jansen A., Houben K., Roefs A. (2015). A cognitive profile of obesity and its translation into new interventions. Frontiers of Psychology. 6; 1807

Khan, U., & Dhar, R. (2006). Licensing effect in consumer choice. Journal of Marketing Research. 43(2), 259–266.

Luppino FS, deWit LM, Bouvy PF, Stijnen T, Cuijpers P, Penninx BW, et al. Overweight, obesity, and depression a systematic review and meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. Archives of General Psychiatry. 2010; 67: 220–229.

Schyns, G., Roefs, A., Mulkens, S., and Jansen, A. (2016). Expectancy violation, reduction of food cue reactivity and less eating in the absence of hunger after one food cue exposure session for overweight and obese women. Behaviour Research and Therapy. 76; 57-64.

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