How Does Your Brain Respond to Food?

Some Overweight People May Be Hardwired to Overeat

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on August 01, 2011
From the WebMD Archives

Aug. 1, 2011 -- Willpower alone usually is not enough for lasting weight loss; instead, to counter obesity, some experts now recommend focusing on the ways in which the brain responds to food rather than solely on personal choice.

In a paper published in the August issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, dietitians at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago conclude that “practitioners should more heavily focus on helping patients overcome the brain-based processes" that make dieting so difficult.

This, the researchers say, is especially important because the brains of at least some obese and overweight people may be hardwired to overeat.

Such an approach to weight loss may be more successful over the long term, and it may also help counter the stigma that overweight people often feel when unable to control their urge to eat.

“Even highly motivated and nutritionally informed patients struggle to refrain from highly palatable foods that are high in sugar, salt, and unhealthy fats,” study researcher Brad Appelhans, PhD, a clinical psychologist and obesity researcher at Rush University Medical Center, says in a news release.

Brain's Response to Food

In the paper, the researchers present three brain processes that are associated with both overeating and obesity: food reward, inhibitory control, and time discounting.

Food reward, which includes both the pleasure of eating and the motivation to eat, has been linked to the same brain processes that control our urges for sex, gambling, and substance use. People with a greater reward sensitivity will likely have stronger food cravings, particularly for fatty and sweet foods, the researchers write.

Inhibitory control, or the ability to eat in moderation, is influenced by the part of the brain strongly associated with self-control and planning, the researchers write.

Time discounting is the tendency to prefer short-term rewards over long-term rewards. In the case of obesity, it amounts to choosing the immediate pleasure of eating tasty foods as opposed to the health benefits of abstaining.

These three brain processes, when coupled with an environment in which highly tempting high-calorie, low-nutrition foods are readily available, contribute to overweight and obesity. Understanding those processes and controlling such environments, the researchers conclude, may contribute more to successful and sustained weight loss than focusing solely on personal choice.

They recommend the following strategies:

  • Eliminate high-fat foods from your home and your workplace.
  • Stick to a shopping list of healthy foods when at the supermarket, or shop online so you don’t have to confront tempting foods.
  • Reduce stress, a frequent trigger of overeating.
  • Stay away from all-you-can-eat buffets and restaurants that promote overindulgence.
  • Focus on short-term goals, especially at the beginning of a weight loss program.

Show Sources


Appelhans, B. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, August, 2011; vol 111: pp 1130-1136.

News release, Rush University Medical Center.

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