Can gratitude help you lose weight? Neuroscience has the clues.
One of the biggest barriers to starting a weight-loss plan is that people don’t want to feel deprived — something they anticipate when they think about not being able to eat their favorite foods. Totally understandable! This article will explain the neuroscience behind why that is so and explain how gratitude can help you feel satisfied.
Feeling deprived — or fear of feeling deprived — is a common and natural response to being told you can’t have something you love. If I said to you, “you can’t go on vacation,” or “you can’t have chocolate,” all the alarm bells would go off in your mind, and you would protest — understandably. Nobody likes to be told what to do, especially when it encroaches on their routine sources pleasure.
By unpacking this phenomenon through the lens of neuroscience, we can glean some insights into how we might use the very same mechanisms for advancing our health goals of eating less sugar and refined carbohydrates — key factors in losing weight.
It turns out that anticipating pleasure is more pleasurable that actually fulfilling it. [This can be confirmed by anyone who experiences wanting to have a piece of chocolate cake, and then regrets it. Knowing you’ll regret it and doing it anyway is a different story!] A research study from 2010 showed that anticipating a vacation induced more happiness than actually taking the vacation, unless it was very relaxing.
Similar findings have been found regarding the role of anticipating the pleasure of listening to music. Positive anticipation involves the neurochemical dopamine, which is associated with pleasure, reward and motivation. Later we’ll discuss the role of dopamine and addiction, but for now just note that dopamine is associated with anticipation and reward.
With the anticipation of reward such a motivating and pleasurable experience, many of us engineer our daily activities around reward: When I finish cleaning the house I’ll have a treat. Or, I worked-out today so I deserve dessert tonight. While this can be an effective tool to get things done, it is a double-edged sword when it comes to our health.
Treats made from sugar and refined carbohydrates wreak havoc on our bodies, setting off a hormonal cascade that has long-term implications for our health. Consuming sugar and refined carbohydrates throughout the day causes a roller coaster of insulin in our bloodstreams which:
- taxes our pancreas (linked to increasing insulin resistance and thus Type 2 Diabetes);
- stores excess sugar as fat in the liver (which can lead to fatty liver disease);
- increases the likelihood of depression;
- increases “bad cholesterol” in the bloodstream (a risk factor for heart disease);
- increases inflammation in the body and gut, which increases the risk of heart disease; and,
- increases the likelihood of Alzheimer’s.
Okay, so we know it’s bad. Over time, it’s really bad. But the idea of giving it up can make us nervous, anxious, defiant, and defensive. That’s largely because our brains are focused on sensation and pleasure, and the fact that we can’t actually feel all of those negative bodily processes going on behind the scenes, we don’t perceive a downside in the moment. We have come to rely on sugar as an easy, reliable, accessible form of pleasure and reward. We fear that without our favorite treats there will be a big void, a vacuum of pleasure. We would feel deprived.
But what if we can use the same reward mechanisms of our biochemistry to make it easier to eat less sugar and develop healthier habits?
One way to avoid feeling pleasure-deprived when quitting sugar is to harness the power of gratitude. Expressing gratitude releases a surge of dopamine from the brain, creating that pleasurable, natural high — without all the side-effects of eating sugar. Dopamine is also associated with motivation, so that by expressing gratitude we feel good, which makes us want to do it more. For sure, gratitude is its own reward.
By deliberately practicing looking for things to be grateful for, we strengthen the neural pathways that “find” things to be grateful for and get our little hit of dopamine. Just as angry people look for –and find — things to be angry about, you can choose to strengthen your gratitude muscle, and never feel deprived again.
While practicing gratitude may be useful in the moment to try to distract you from a cookie, practicing gratitude more broadly will also fill your life with more dopamine. When you get hits of dopamine all day from noticing and being grateful for little things, when you take out a cookie it’s no big deal, so you won’t feel deprived. There’s plenty more ways you’re getting your dopamine hits.
A beginning way to cultivate a gratitude practice is to reflect on (or ask your partner or kids) at the end of the day:
What are three things you are grateful for?
A more advanced way to practice gratitude is to layer on random reflections throughout your day: I’m grateful for this peach; I’m grateful for clean laundry; I’m grateful for the rain. As many times in the day that you can stop and express gratitude, the better you will feel…so you won’t need a cookie to make you feel good.
Hacking the pleasure and reward system is just one of the strategies I discovered when I quit sugar. In my pursuit to break my own sugar addiction, I discovered three different mechanisms by which we can become dependent on sugar/refined carbohydrates:
Physiologically through 3 different mechanisms
- Dopamine response
- Blood sugar fluctuations
- Feeding the bad bacteria in our guts
- Stress eating
- Numbing emotions
- Linking treats with positive feelings (i.e. safety and love in grandma’s kitchen)
- Social gatherings
Quitting sugar is much easier when you address all of these, retraining your brain and body — especially its reward system — to make healthful choices.
You can learn more about the tools you’ll need to make quitting sugar easier over at BreakingFreefromSugar.com, the program I wish I had when I was trying to quit — and which I felt compelled to create to help you break free. The first week is free, and you’ll learn a lot about why sugar is so bad for you. Quitting sugar is the first step you need to take to reclaim your health, and I’d love to help you do it.
I’m grateful you took the time to read this article .