Have you ever wondered why you find yourself ordering that slice of chocolate cake, when you promised yourself you wouldn’t? For most of us, our food habits and eating behaviors seem to take over at times and suddenly order cake — controlling us instead of the other way around. Of course, all impulsive chocolate cake orders originate from our brain, the engine behind all of our food choices. So if we are going to be the masters of how we eat, we need to know a few brain basics.

Our brains use many different signaling systems and brain areas to figure out when and what to eat. We also have chemical receptors — like taste receptors — in our gut. There are receptors telling us the volume of food we eat, plus hormones that signal the types of food, like cake — well, really the sugar in the cake. Finally, all of these signals are sent to many areas in our brain, each of which does its own unique thing with that information. Does your head hurt yet?

You might be thinking, “Why all of this complexity?” Basically, eating behavior is just another form of learning to the brain, like learning to speak when you were a baby. And when the brain forms eating habits, it builds them using cues from the environment, emotions, or social situations — turning each habit into a “keeper” or a “never again.” Pint of ice cream after heartbreak? Keeper! The meal you threw up after too many amusement park rides? Never again!

Now that you know that hunger and eating are learned, and highly cue-based behaviors, the good news is you can use this knowledge to help design better food habits that work with, not against your brain.

Here are eight secrets to getting your brain to eat the way you truly want:

Learn to eat  cued by hunger!

Your brain can send you signals that make you think you need to eat even if it already has enough energy and just wants pleasure (2). Eating just for pleasure is called ‘hedonic eating’. To combat this, try to invite a few tummy growls as a good sign before eating a snack or meal. Like stretching a muscle, see how long you can hold it, but don’t snap into feeling starved or deprived.

Be aware of emotional sync

When we eat more, or we eat unhealthy foods, this can actually change the ‘wiring’ in our brains. For example, brain regions involved in pleasurable responses to food can actually become more “in sync” with our emotion centers called “limbic regions” (3).

Change what’s rewarding

One brain area called the hypothalamus responds to hunger and feeling full. It also is responsible for signaling to brain regions responsible for “reward learning” (4). Let’s say you find candy rewarding. You can now use this brain fact to feel rewarded by healthy fruit instead!

Take it slow

Did you know that learning and practicing new behaviors that are spaced out over time is more effective than learning that occurs over a short period of time? Repeating certain behaviors multiple times and slowing ourselves down a bit to allow time for the brain to absorb a bit, seems to work best (5).

Re-wire for growth

Eating behaviors that we aren’t too fond of can be re-trained, and even the wiring in our brains can adapt to our retraining. Realizing that eating behavior is not static is part of what is called “growth mindset” (6). When we allow ourselves to be flexible and give ourselves time to learn and grow, we optimize our ability to reduce habits that don’t work for us and replace them with new ones.

Avoid failure by avoiding “fixed goals”

Exercising “growth mindset” reduces our chances of triggering our “habenula”; a region deep in the brain involved in signaling a negative outcome or failure. When we focus on the process, instead of a fixed goal, we can avoid the habenula signaling to our brains that we have “failed.” This helps us remain positive and effortful while designing new and better eating habits (7).

Check your environment

Awareness of the environment around us can help shape how we eat. For example, removing unhealthy foods or replacing the chips in your house with veggies and dip are ways that help us form habits faster. Research shows that these stimuli in our environment can actually increase activity in brain regions that control of our movement (8). This means that seeing a tempting food could actually make you grab it!

Prime for good choices

Activate your self-control by focusing on the health benefits of a food, rather than filtering for taste. When you filter for health instead, you do a better job at activating a region of your brain that helps you to value that food — your ventromedial prefrontal cortex (9).

Ultimately, you’re in control of your brain, so now you are empowered to take action on using your brain’s secrets to your advantage. We, at engagedIN, hope you put your brilliant brain to the test!

Here’s to your new secret (and positive) weapon for healthy eating! *smile

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  1. Hebebrand, J., Albayrak, Ö., Adan, R., Antel, J., Dieguez, C., de Jong, J., Leng, G., Menzies, J., Mercer, J.G., Murphy, M., et al. (2014). “Eating addiction”, rather than “food addiction”, better captures addictive-like eating behavior. Neurosci Biobehav Rev 47, 295–306.

  2. Berthoud, H.-R. (2011). Metabolic and hedonic drives in the neural control of appetite: who is the boss? Current Opinion in Neurobiology 21, 888–896.

  3. Avery, J.A., Powell, J.N., Breslin, F.J., Lepping, R.J., Martin, L.E., Patrician, T.M., Donnelly, J.E., Savage, C.R., and Simmons, W.K. (2017). Obesity is associated with altered mid-insula functional connectivity to limbic regions underlying appetitive responses to foods. J Psychopharmacol 31, 1475–1484.

  4. Sharpe, M.J., Marchant, N.J., Whitaker, L.R., Richie, C.T., Zhang, Y.J., Campbell, E.J., Koivula, P.P., Necarsulmer, J.C., Mejias-Aponte, C., Morales, M., et al. (2017). Lateral Hypothalamic GABAergic Neurons Encode Reward Predictions that Are Relayed to the Ventral Tegmental Area to Regulate Learning. Current Biology 27, 2089–2100.e5.

  5. Wimmer, G.E., Li, J.K., Gorgolewski, K.J., and Poldrack, R.A. (2018). Reward learning over weeks versus minutes increases the neural representation of value in the human brain. J. Neurosci. 0075-18.

  6. Dweck, C.S. (2000). Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development (Psychology Press).

  7. Lawson, R.P., Seymour, B., Loh, E., Lutti, A., Dolan, R.J., Dayan, P., Weiskopf, N., and Roiser, J.P. (2014). The habenula encodes negative motivational value associated with primary punishment in humans. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 111, 11858–11863.

  8. Wegman, J., van Loon, I., Smeets, P.A.M., Cools, R., and Aarts, E. (2018). Top-down expectation effects of food labels on motivation. Neuroimage 173, 13–24.

  9. Hare, T.A., Malmaud, J., and Rangel, A. (2011). Focusing Attention on the Health Aspects of Foods Changes Value Signals in vmPFC and Improves Dietary Choice. J. Neurosci. 31, 11077–11087.