In part 1 of this series, I covered some of our brains evolutionary traits that play a role in why we frequently overeat despite not wanting to. If you haven’t read this yet, I highly recommend you do as this article will make much more sense!

The crux of the first article was that part of the reason we suffer from obesity and chronic diseases is, what scientists call, an evolutionary mismatch. Certain traits that helped our ancestors survive and reproduce are now causing us to overeat in our modern obesogenic environment. I covered three of the major traits including; the reward system, the economic choice system and our preference for immediate gratification over our future self.

I’ll agree, it painted a pretty grim picture and may have left you thinking ” What! Even my brain is against me! How am I meant to achieve my goals when a lot of my decision making is unconsciously derailing me?”

What can we do to address these unconscious traits?

While education is a great first step, providing information only addresses the rational, conscious brain, which as I’ve outlined in part 1 may be less of a problem, than its unconscious partner.

So, here are four ways we can assist body weight regulation through changing the cues we send the non-conscious brain system:

1. Beware of food reward

As I mentioned in part one of the series, our brains tend to place high value on foods that are energy dense and contain combinations of fat, sugar, starch, salt and protein. Manufacturers have pounced on this, and we now see foods that contain many of these food properties in concentrated forms. These processed foods are unlike anything our ancestors would have encountered and are so rewarding to our brains that they tend to override our bodies hunger regulatory systems. This leads to overeating, increased cravings and eventually ingrained harmful eating habits.

The solution seems clear. Base the majority of your intake on simple, whole foods. Foods that are less energy dense, are closer to their natural state and that most people rarely overeat.

Everyone has their own ‘trigger’ foods that they find highly ‘rewarding’ (for me its movie popcorn, cheesecake and pizza). Identifying these and removing them from places you spend the majority of your time is a smart move.

2. Reducing food cues

Food cues can be sights, smells, places, situations etc. that un-consciously trigger your motivation for specific foods. Think the smell of subway or pizza, ads on TV for fast food, feeling stressed (ice cream on the couch?) etc. Tempting food cues in your personal environment can drive overeating because our brains have learnt to associate those cues with reward and motivate us to seek them.

Reduce your exposure to food cues. Less cues equal fewer cravings.

This might include reducing the amount of tempting, energy dense foods in your home or workplace, in particular, those that are highly visible. If you crave something sweet at night, it may be that your brain has associated this time with dessert. Replacing that habit with a healthier alternative or eliminating any potential food options will reduce cravings in the future. If walking through food courts at lunch time makes you crave certain foods, find an alternate route.

3. Increase barriers to eating

Our ancestors had to overcome significant barriers to access energy dense foods. To get the sweetness of honey, they had to create a fire in order to make smoke to sedate the bees, climb a tree and then collect the honey. For fats and protein, it was tracking, hunting and killing an animal.

Make consuming foods you tend to overeat an effort. Anything that increases the energy or time required for you to acquire that food is a good start. Whether that’s not keeping a particular food in the house, burying it at the bottom of the freezer or placing it out of sight. Compared to having it easily accessible these can all help with reducing the amount we eat.

These don’t have to be drastic, even small things such as having nuts in their shells, means slightly more time and effort. A study by Wansink and colleagues in 2004 recruited administrative assistants and placed chocolate in one of three locations in their offices; on their desk, in the draw of their desk or in a filing cabinet across the room. Each of these options required slightly more effort and yet they resulted in significant differences in chocolate consumption. Just placing the chocolate across the room requiring the assistants to get up and walk across the room to the filing cabinet decreased chocolate consumption by over 50%.

Make energy dense food LESS convenient and eat less.

4. Episodic future thinking

In part one I talked about delay discounting, or how as humans we often tend to make choices that favour immediate gratification at the cost of our future selves. Our brains evolved this way due to our ancestors, whose future was much less certain, so they did what would ensure their immediate survival.

In today’s environment, it leads us to make self-destructive choices that our future selves pay for. To fight this evolutionary trait, we can practice episodic future thinking (EFT). Essentially EFT is a fancy name for a simple exercise: Before making a decision that pits your present self against your future self, imagine yourself in the future. Think of positive events in the future such as an upcoming vacation, wedding or birthday party. Try to picture the scene with as much detail as you can and imagine yourself enjoying it, the more graphic, the better.

Using EFT can increase activity in the brain region that processes abstract concepts like the future and therefore causes your brain to intuitively consider the future more in its decision-making process. Research shows that this can reduce the intake of energy dense, tempting foods by up to 30% in overweight women.

While nothing revolutionary, these four points can help combat our brains evolutionary traits. As always, many of these points fall into the recurring theme of playing the long game with health and nutrition. Remember that health, body composition and setting good food habits is a marathon, not a sprint, invest in yourself and the skills that are going to help you in the long run.

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Wansink B. Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers. Annu. Rev. Nutr.. 2004 Jul 14;24:455-79.

Atance CM, O’Neill DK. Episodic future thinking. Trends in cognitive sciences. 2001 Dec 1;5(12):533-9.

Peters J, Büchel C. Episodic future thinking reduces reward delay discounting through an enhancement of prefrontal-mediotemporal interactions. Neuron. 2010 Apr 15;66(1):138-48.