New Season, New You

Your self-control is finite, so spend it well

Dec. 31, 2013 at 2:57 PM ET

If you're trying to lose weight, your chances of success might increase if you avoid other activities requiring a lot of self-control soon before meal time, suggests a study by Dartmouth researchers published in the journal Psychological Science.

Previous studies have suggested that people have a limited amount of self-control that dwindles when used to cope with stress, temptation and other challenges to our willpower, leaving us vulnerable to impulsive and undesirable behavior.

In the new study, 31 women who were chronic dieters completed an attention-control task that did or did not deplete their self-control. They then underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging while viewing images of high-calorie, appetizing food. The results showed the depleted dieters had greater activity in the orbitofrontal cortex, an area of the brain related to food rewards. They also had reduced connectivity between this area and the inferior frontal gyrus, a region implicated in self-control.

The findings suggest that such depletion reduces a person's ability to engage in self-control by reducing connectivity between brain regions that are involved in cognitive control and those that represent rewards, thereby decreasing the capacity to resist temptations.

On a practical level, the findings suggest that if you can order your day so that activities that demand a lot of self-control, such as a necessary but tedious pile of work, don't occur soon before a meal, you may find it easier to make good food choices.

Source: Psychological Science

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