Most people won’t argue that dieting requires a certain amount of willpower. But in a battle between willpower and pizza after a long day at work, willpower often gets its butt kicked. It’s nothing to shame yourself over—especially since your ability to pass on that pizza may be pre-determined by your brain, according to science.
Your Brain And Dieting
You see, your brain is made up of two different kinds of matter: gray matter, where most of your brain’s activity occurs, and white matter, which controls the nerve signals that travel up and down the spinal cord. According to a study recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience, people with more gray matter in the prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain just behind your forehead) may actually have more self-control when it comes to making healthy food choices.
“The prefrontal cortex is very generally involved in decision-making, with dietary decisions just being one of them,” explains study author Hilke Plassmann, Ph.D., Chaired Professor of Decision Neuroscience at INSEAD in France. “Other studies show this system is also important for decisions about which car to buy, which stock to invest in, which partner to date, and to which charity to donate to.”
Researchers looked at two specific parts of the prefrontal cortex that have been linked to self-control: the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). Using MRI images, they studied how participants’ brains responded when they were asked to consider either the healthiness or taste of a certain food (like a yogurt or a cookie), or to just make a decision naturally, before rating how much they wanted to eat it. Those who gave healthier foods higher ratings were deemed to have stronger self-control, and the MRIs showed that those people had more gray matter in their prefrontal cortices.
Then, once again using MRI imaging, the researchers presented a second set of people with images of different foods, and told them to ‘distance’ themselves from the food, ‘indulge’ in it, or make decisions naturally before choosing how much they would pay to eat that food. Here, too, more gray matter was linked to more self-control.
While the study didn’t determine exactly the precise roles the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex play in dietary decision making, other imaging studies suggest that the vmPFC is involved in our consideration of the information we use to determine how we value a food option overall (such as taste and healthiness), says Plassmann. The dlPFC, meanwhile, seems to be more involved in the actual implementation of self-control.
What That Means For You
We know what you’re wondering: Can you boost your self-control by increasing the amount of gray matter in those two prefrontal cortex areas? Maybe. “A new technique called ‘neurofeedback’ [a type of electronic therapy that uses visual and auditory cues to modulate brain activity and thus behavior] has been shown to alter gray matter volume, in some cases,” says Plassman. “Our findings suggest that if and when they are perfected, neurofeedback modalities targeting the vmPFC and dlPFC could potentially help people with self-control issues improve their eating habits. However, this question remains to be studied by future research, and our results only hint at this possibility.”
In the meantime, you can learn to exercise what nutritionist Alice Figueroa, R.D.N. calls “positive self-control” to establish and stick to a healthy diet. “Positive self-control requires us develop a nurturing relationship to food that is centered around three things,” she says. “First: self-regulation, which you can achieve by setting high-level goals like maintaining a healthy weight. Second: self-efficacy, or having confidence and optimism about your ability to reach your goals. And third: body appreciation, which should be self-explanatory!”