Exhausted and Reaching for Sweets – Could Your Brain Be the Culprit?

Exhausted and Reaching for Sweets - Could Your Brain Be the Culprit?

Two groups of people were evaluated to see which foods they would choose after an assigned task:

Jonah Lehrer writes for NPR: “One group was given a two-digit number to remember, while the second group was given a seven-digit number. Then they were told to walk down the hall, where they were presented with two different snack options: a slice of chocolate cake or a bowl of fruit salad.”

“Here’s where the results get weird. The students with seven digits to remember were nearly twice as likely to choose the cake as students given two digits. The reason, according to Professor Shiv, is that those extra numbers took up valuable space in the brain — they were a “cognitive load” — making it that much harder to resist a decadent dessert. In other words, willpower is so weak, and the prefrontal cortex is so overtaxed, that all it takes is five extra bits of information before the brain starts to give in to temptation.”

The Culprit:  Jonah Lehrer reports to NPR’s Robert Krulwich that this experiment involves the prefrontal cortex, located just behind the forehead. It’s the brain area largely responsible for willpower. This hunk of brain tissue, he says, has greatly expanded over the last few hundred-thousand years, but “it probably hasn’t expanded enough.” The reason our willpower is so often weak, he suggests, is because this bit of brain lacks a certain (how shall we put this?) … muscularity.

Leher writes, this helps explain why, after a long day at the office, we’re more likely to indulge in a pint of ice cream, or eat one too many slices of leftover pizza,”

So what can you do to combat stress eating?  Stock your kitchen with foods that your body and brain can say yes to even after a stressful day at work. Buy single serve indulgent items.  And if your brain gives in, don’t sabotage your diet, just be sure to be more active the next day.

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