Lack of Willpower Might Not Be to Blame When Diets Fail

Cristina Goyanes
by Cristina Goyanes
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Lack of Willpower Might Not Be to Blame When Diets Fail

You started the holiday season with resolve. You swore you’d steer clear of cookies and limit your cocktails to just one — two, tops. And you did, at first. But with each passing party, the call of the cookie tray and the open bar grew louder until, finally, you caved. By the time the new year rolled around, sweets — in the form of baked goods or sugary libations — had become part of your everyday diet. A few pounds later, you’re left wondering: How did I let this happen? Turns out, weak willpower isn’t completely to blame.

In a new paper published in Cognitive Neuroscience, researchers set out to see how the brain’s self-control and reward centers square off when they spot a food signal and how the pathway between those centers might affect your ability to abstain from temptation. To investigate this, they examined the white matter connections inside the minds of 36 women, ages 18–23, with a history of diet failures. They also measured their total body-fat percentages, which ranged between 16.6–38.2%.


At the start of the experiment, subjects were asked to watch a seven-minute video about Canadian bighorn sheep while trying to ignore words on screen that aimed to distract them. The point of the sheep flick was to get people to let their guard down so their reactions were more natural. Once the ladies loosened up a bit, they were ready for the real examination to begin.

Each woman was hooked up to a functional MRI machine and asked to look at a series of 270 pictures. Two-thirds of the photos were images of people or nature. The other 90 were shots of appetizing food. For every photo that appeared, the women were asked to mark whether it showed something indoors or outdoors. Their answers, however, weren’t what interested researchers, who were really out to monitor the fMRI recordings of their brain activity.

The researchers were primarily concerned with two areas in the brain: the orbitofrontal cortex, which is considered the reward region, and the inferior frontal gyrus, which is associated with self-control and decision making. Images of tantalizing food elicited a greater response from the reward region than the pictures of nature or people. That much was expected. Try as we might to appreciate beautiful scenery, our brains are hardwired to see edible delights as more rewarding. That makes sense on an evolutionary level — a breathtaking sunset won’t keep you alive when you’re starving.


While this feedback was a no-brainer, literally, what intrigued scientists more was the subjects’ responses from the control region of the brain. The IFG also showed heightened activity.

“One interpretation is that dieters are super aware of food cues in every instance,” study author Pin-Hao Andy Chen, a doctoral candidate in cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth College, explained in an email. “They have to constantly regulate (inhibit and monitor) their desires to appetitive food cues in daily life.”

So essentially, in the brains of chronic dieters, food prompted two responses simultaneously. The reward part of their mind was saying “Ooh, good! Eat!” Meanwhile the control part was saying “Nooo! Don’t do it!” If that sounds exhausting — like the brain is arguing with itself — that’s because it is. And there’s a limit on how long the “don’t do it!” section can win. Self-regulation is a limited resource.

“When [dieters] keep doing this, they become more vulnerable to lose control because their regulation resource has been drained,” Chen says.


During the analysis that followed the exam, researchers made another interesting discovery. The white matter pathway connecting the reward region (OFC) and control region (IFG) was weaker in people who had higher body-fat percentages. Weaker white matter makes the two sections less able to communicate with each other, which scientists say can also play a role in self-control failures.

“With an inefficient communication between the executive control and reward regions, individuals with reduced [white matter] integrity may have difficulty in overriding rewarding temptations, leading to a greater chance of becoming obese,” the paper states.

What’s clear in this study is that when the white matter link between reward and self-control was weaker, the person was heavier. What’s not clear is why this occurs. Chen speculates it’s possible that all of the dieting failures weakened the pathway. But it’s equally possible that the connection was weak from the get-go and could be causing those lapses in self-control. Chen confirms more studies are need before science will know the answer.

In the meantime, there is good news you can take with you to your next food-heavy party, like Super Bowl Sunday. Some emerging science shows you can improve your white matter through training. Other studies also show that you can develop greater self-control through practice. The takeaway might be that willpower, like any form of strength, must be developed incrementally.

About the Author

Cristina Goyanes
Cristina Goyanes

Cristina Goyanes is a NYC-based freelance editor and writer who covers topics including sports and fitness, health and lifestyle, and adventure travel for various national men’s and women’s magazines and websites. When she’s not feverishly typing stories at her desk, she’s exploring the world, from the Arctic to Antarctica and plenty of countries in between. Follow her adventures and more at


14 responses to “Lack of Willpower Might Not Be to Blame When Diets Fail”

  1. Avatar Jerome Barry says:

    Now we need to understand how to efficiently “train” white matter.

  2. Avatar RJ Shackleford says:

    This is precisely why I’ve never understood what possesses MFP to fill the home page of the app w/blog posts laden with food porn. It’s a *dieting* app, so why on earth do you feel the need to incessantly make it harder?

    Our daily lives are already filled w/food images, you yourselves in this article are admitting to being aware of the detrimental effects that those images have on dieters, & yet *persist* in posting them. It would be different if you could set the app to block them, but since you can’t, it’s thoughtless at best & cruel at worst to continue doing it.

    • Avatar bekk31 says:

      I use Ghostery chrome extension to block all the food ads. Works like a charm. 🙂

    • Avatar Ggalium says:

      If you see a piece of relatively healthy pizza (the food “porn” are recipes) and feel the need to eat a whole pie the problem is you. If you like eating oat bran and low carb snack bars because you fear real food thats on you. Not an ad.

      • Avatar RJ Shackleford says:

        The science says otherwise. The human body detests weight loss, & will change the entire neuroendocrine milieu to return to one’s highest established weight.

        Which may be less of an issue for those with nothing more than 30-50 lbs of Dunkin Donuts weight to deal with, but for those of us trying to keep genuine, severe obesity in remission, it’s very difficult.

        And the hell it’s all recipes; often it’s something about moderating sugar intake while showing piles of cake & candy. The picture at the top of this very entry, though nothing by MFP standards, is also frankly just stupid. Showing a pretty girl eating a sandwich cookie, like a single damn Skinny Cow represents loss of control.

        And don’t put your bitter attitude towards traditional diet foods on me, and don’t put words in my mouth, *or* foods on my plate. I prefer real, whole foods…but to pretend a cookie made w/honey, gluten free oats, & free paleo-approved love won’t make me just as damn fat as a Chips Ahoy is a BS fantasy; if it’s not like that for you, congratulations, I almost care.

      • Avatar Ashleigh says:

        You must not have read the article. It’s not a lack of willpower. The article is pretty much saying that it isn’t ‘on’ anybody.

    • Avatar Ashleigh says:

      I think because if they make it easy for us, and we achieve our weightloss goals we will no longer need the app… I don’t believe any weightloss company wants you to actually loose weight.

  3. Avatar Tony Babarino says:

    People do what’s most often what is important to them, what the value most, or what they believe is “important”. Now, if you really want motivation to eat less, sit in front of a large mirror and eat your food while naked. You will have a powerful and endless motivator right there! 🙂

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  4. Avatar Frid Kun says:

    It’s doesn’t seem that study says what you say it says. It looks more like study says that some people are hard wired to have more or less willpower because biochemistry or something. Of course the problem with such research that every finding about “you don’t really have free will” drains willpower and motivation leaving people with even less free will.

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