Is Your Brain Sabotaging Your Weight Loss?
Bypass your brain, not your stomach.
Posted May 9, 2022 | Reviewed by Michelle Quirk
- Your brain is the cause of your motivation kill switch when you are trying to lose weight.
- Drastic change and too much restriction in dieting will trigger your brain to stop your effort.
- Training your brain can be the most powerful weight-loss tool.
Losing weight is not an easy nut to crack, and a weighing scale is not a bed of roses for some people. As soon as you step on it, you feel like you are entering a red zone. People struggling with weight loss often come up with sentences like, "I've been trying to lose weight for a month, and all I've lost is my 30 days."
Many have heard about the reward pathways that make us do something, and in the weight loss journey, it is usually to sabotage us, but have you heard why one may stop doing something, especially if it is helpful?
The Role of the Habenula
The habenula is the decision-maker in your journey of weight loss as it controls dopamine levels in the striatum—in other words, it's the motivation switch. Its Latin meaning, "little rein," indicates its power in the system of the brain. It's a major influencer in regulating the brain's response toward reward, pain, anxiety, and stress.
Setting a specific goal or outcome for weight can be tricky because, if you do not achieve this, your habenula triggers you to stop trying, even if things are going well. The story I hear usually is that they have been losing a pound a week and feel great, but at some point they stop losing, and they feel like they are not reaching a goal despite doing so well previously on that diet. This is when the lateral habenula awakens.
You start becoming tied to your scale and obsessed with counting calories, carbs, or steps and lose focus of what really matters, your effort and overall progress. You have re-programmed to be reward-driven and goal-focused. When you do not get the expected reward, your lateral habenula gets stimulated and shuts down your motivation to keep trying. The more this cycle happens, the more readily your lateral habenula activates to shut it down.
This is where yo-yo dieting comes in. The real worrisome situation comes when the habenula starts sending signals at improper times. It may trigger you to stop before even trying. It may say something like this: "You have already tried exercising in the past; just do not even put yourself through that again, plus you know you have bad knees." You need to learn to bypass the habenula to prevent it from triggering.
The big question is how does one do this? Well, start by doing more bite-sized habits that you know you can do, and think ahead of time what you will do if this new habit gets old. Understanding upfront things may only work for a time, and be ready to change it up if necessary by being kind to yourself. Have realistic options in your mind and try to not commit to a certain goal or a number, but focus on effort and progress.
Another reason for the habenula trigger is that strict dieting gets severe rejection by your body and because the regulator of your body weight is the brain. Your body has a set point weight that is not concerned with your looks and your goal of a certain weight. Hunger hormones ghrelin and leptin are responsible for maintaining your body's set point. They tell your body when it's hungry and when it's satisfied. Restrictive dieting triggers stress hormones, and your continuous suppression of hunger makes you less responsive to healthy decision-making, and weight regulation gets affected. In other words, when drastic diet or lifestyle changes trigger hormones, your brain will respond by forcing you to do behaviors that it recognizes as comfortable to bring you back to your set point.
This is why oftentimes weight-loss efforts get resisted by the brain; you might start with a plate of salad and end up eating your favorite dessert from the fridge. The habenula will sense this indulgence as a failure and will kill your motivation to keep trying on the weight-loss journey. The goal is to protect you, but it is only helping you lose the motivation to keep trying. The reward pathway triggers you to deal with the stress by doing something rewarding. So you decide to eat that brownie you swore not to ever touch again, and the habenula comes in as a kill switch and causes you not to want to keep trying that diet.
Moreover, when your brain senses the low amount of leptin in your blood, it provokes you to eat more to maintain your set point. Your brain and body act like your well-wishers; that is why they have no concern with your desire to reduce weight, which may feel to you like they are acting against you.
A Smart Approach
Though your brain is a strict ruler, it can be tricked and handled with a smart approach. Your dream of weight loss can come true if you make your brain comfortable lowering your set point weight without triggering it. You can start by not entertaining a severe restricting diet and never say never to any foods. Do not give up everything you love; this will cause the brain to trigger. It will trigger cravings and hunger, which will activate your reward pathway and then your habenula to kill the switch.
Starting with easy and simple healthier habits that can be built upon over time will give cues to your brain, and it will naturally support you in your weight-loss mission. Do not focus on the number, but focus on the effort. If you feel a new habit is not working, tweak it and change it to something more doable. The goal should be staying in effort with healthier habits, not the number on the scale.
Stress management, a sufficient amount of sleep, and physical activities enhance your fat-burning ability and contribute to weight loss. In the end, healthy behaviors should be the priority rather than focusing on a certain weight.
Your mental health is way more important than your desire to lose weight. Being kinder to yourself will help you bypass the aggressive antireward system of the habenula.
Okihide, H, Nat. Rev Neuro. 2010 Jul;11(7):503-13