Can’t Fight Temptation? Blame Your Brain Cells
Temptation is as old as time. It is defined as the desire to perform an action that you may enjoy in the short term, but later regret committing the act. The earliest written example of temptation, of course, is the Old Testament story of Adam and Eve. Setting aside the religious aspects of the story and focusing on something more biological, researchers at Dartmouth College believe the reward center of the brain is responsible for why we cannot seem to control ourselves in certain situations.
Bill Kelley, associate professor of Dartmouth’s department of psychological and brain sciences, and Kathryn Demos, who is now an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University, used functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) to scan the striatum of the brains of 48 college freshman women while they viewed pictures of food, erotica, and landscapes. Six months later, the women returned to the lab where they were weighed and asked to fill out a questionnaire. The women were completely blind to the focus of the study.
The focus of the study was on a structure within the striatum known as the nucleus accumbens. This collection of neurons is thought to play an important role in reward, pleasure, laughter, addiction, and the placebo effect. Hyperactivation within this portion of the brain predicted the women’s eating and sexual behavior. The women whose accumbens reacted especially strongly to the food cues had gained more weight and those who reacted to the sexual cues were more likely to have had sex and report stronger sexual desire.
Dr. Kelley says the study shows that one’s ability to say “no” is not just a matter of willpower, but brain wiring. But it is not entirely a matter of genetics, he notes. Our temptations may start with a stronger tendency to desire something specific, but this is further developed by our experiences. Meaning, there are some methods we can use to help us overcome our temptations for those unhealthful behaviors that stand in our way.
With food, for example, there are mind tricks that can be used to keep us on track for a healthy diet. Dr. Mehmet Oz shares several ways to avoid temptation and get control of food cravings.
First, know what sets off your cravings. A particular commercial? A drive by a restaurant where you can smell the wonderful food cooking inside? Steer clear of those temptations by putting them out of reach. Do not buy the big bag of chips that you love just so the rest of your family can enjoy them. If they are in your pantry, they will call to you. Take a different route to work if you tend to stop by a fast-food joint on the way.
Second, find a healthier substitute for the food item you crave. If you like chocolate, try a dark chocolate that provides antioxidants. If you crave something sweet and creamy, try a small container of yogurt instead of a gallon of ice cream.
Third, mentally (and physically) get away from your craving. Take a walk outside. Rearrange your sock drawer. Call a friend. Do anything that will take your mind off of the food item for an hour, and you might find you don’t really want it after all. Dr. Oz says, “Most cravings don’t last more than 20 to 30 minutes, so by the time the hour passes, you may have solved your problem.”
Another mental trick is to minimize the intensity of the cravings by changing your outlook toward the item. Instead of saying, “I really want that donut, but I can’t have it,” say “Yes, it smells good and would probably taste good too. And I could eat it if I want to, but do I really want to? Is it really worth missing out on a longer, improved quality of life?” Remember the long-term gains you will receive for avoiding the temptation. Weight loss goals cannot be met if you act on every craving you have for a sugary, fat-laden food. But also keep in mind that scheduling treats for yourself is important so you don’t feel deprived (which may cause you to completely abandon your efforts), but these should be thoughtfully included within the meal plan.
Lastly, try cleansing your palate by brushing your teeth, gargling with mouthwash or chewing sugar-free gum. “Nothing tastes good after you have that minty taste in your mouth,” says Dr. Oz.
Demos KE, Heatherton TF, and Kelley WM. Individual Differences in Nucleus Accumbens Activity to Food and Sexual Images Predict Weight Gain and Sexual Behavior. The Journal of Neuroscience, 18 April 2012, 32(16): 5549-5552; doi: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.5958-11.2012