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Struggling with Your Diet? Your Brain is Your Best Weapon

brain and diet

When it comes to saying no to a crème-filled donut and staying on your diet, your best bet may be having a good amount of white matter in your brain.

A team of researchers has discovered that the structure of your brain may be the key to succeeding with your diet. The researchers say that ample white matter linking the various parts of the brain is important to keep you from falling into the pit of yo-yo dieting.

Specifically, having a generous amount of white matter found between the brain’s executive control system (inferior frontal gyrus) and its reward system (orbifrontal cortex) gives you a great deal more willpower to stick to your eating program.

“Individuals with reduced (white matter) integrity may have difficulty in overriding rewarding temptations, leading to a greater chance of becoming obese than those with higher structural integrity,” the researchers, led by Pin-Hao Andy Chen of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College, say.

What is White Matter, Exactly?

While plenty of attention has been given to grey matter, the pinkish-grey folds of brain tissue where all the brain cell bodies and their dendrites are found, white matter hasn’t been given the attention it is due.

White matter is a tract of pinkish-white tissue found between the different locations in the brain. It comprises the axons of brain cells that send electrochemical signals from one neuron to the next.

Think of a subway system that links the different parts of a major city. You can choose to go to a certain part of the city by walking, but taking the train makes the job so much faster. The role of white matter is very similar to your city’s subway system. It speeds up communication between your brain cells located in different places in the brain.

How Does White Matter Affect Your Diet’s Success?

Chronic dieters, or people who have been bouncing on and off a caloric restriction program for two years or more and are obsessed with losing weight, have been shown to have excessive reactions to food in their executive control and reward systems.

In the real world, they are also known to have little control over temptations and tend to go overboard when they reward themselves with high-calorie foods.

To explore how brain structure further affects people’s reactions to food, the researchers recruited 36 female chronic dieters who had a mean body fat percentage of 29.6%. The participants were instructed to look at pictures of food and other images while connected to a functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) scanner.

The researchers found out that the participants’ executive control and reward systems reacted more heavily when they saw food images as compared to the non-food pictures. They also discovered that participants who had a lower body fat percentage, which indicates better success with dieting, had greater white matter integrity between their brain’s cognitive control and reward areas.

In other words, those who were more likely to be successful with their diets demonstrated having a better communication system between the part of their brain associated with planning and decision making and another part associated with rewards.

The study is published in the journal Cognitive Neuroscience.

How to Increase White Matter in Your Brain

The best way to increase both grey and white matter in your brain is to create new brain cells that can wire and fire together to form the stuff of your brain.

However, you don’t need to go back to school for this. There are simple things you can do at home that will help you build new brain cells over time.

· Do routine tasks differently, such as brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand or taking a different route to work. Doing so activates new pathways in your brain where more white-colored axons can grow.

· Exercise regularly. A consistent workout routine helps with weight loss, but it also contributes to a healthier brain. Aerobic exercise, for instance, has been specifically found to help develop both grey and white matter in the brain.

· Supplement with omega-3 fatty acids. Your brain tissue is made up largely of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), a fatty acid that is found in heart-healthy omega-3.

· Learn a new skill. It may take up quite some time, but learning a new skill, such as a speaking a foreign language, taking up an art class, or participating in a new sport, encourages your brain to create new neurons that both contribute to grey and white matter.

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