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  • Brian Bender, PhD

Diet and Motivation: Why Focusing on Motivation May Fail You

Diet and motivation often go hand in hand when discussing weight loss or other dietary health goals. But brain research suggests that focusing on motivation may not be the best approach for dietary success.

Many well-intentioned nutritionists focus on motivation as a tool for shifting dietary patterns and achieving diet-related goals like weight loss. So why might it be a poor approach?

Brain research on motivation shows some striking suggestions for why. And it has a lot to do with understanding how we perceive rewards.

Diet and Motivation: Your Brain on Delayed Rewards

Dopamine drives some interesting brain chemistry. One place you may have heard about it, is its association with drug use.

Dopamine is a hormone that is released in the brain when something good happens (that’s where the drug association comes in). But it is also released for most activities that bring pleasure in life. It is released after sex. It is released after you exercise. And yes, dopamine is released after you eat.

It drives the motivation-reward system so pervasive in life. You do some activity, say, work all day at a dead-end job you don’t like. But, on the first of the month, you get a paycheck! The anticipation of that reward drives dopamine production – as does the act of receiving the paycheck.

But here’s the interesting part.

Much, much more dopamine is released in anticipation of the reward. Not in the reward itself. The pursuit of a reward – and importantly, one you believe has a decent shot of occurring – drives a large portion of your happiness.

The anticipation of dietary goals, then, makes it difficult for motivation to drive the safe dopamine-response system.

There are several hurdles that many people face that make diet and motivation difficult to maintain its dopamine-related dance.

You must believe the reward is capable of being achieved.

This is genuinely a concern for many. Maybe someone has let themselves go for far too long, and has accepted the fact that they will never be able to lose weight. They’ve tried weight loss programs before that have all fail, and have made up their mind they will always fail.

Other times, people have decided that their genes are the culprit. For some, this can genuinely make things more difficult.

But for the vast majority of the population, this scapegoat deprives well-meaning individuals down the path of despair and ultimately kills motivation and prevents dopamine from flowing during healthy activities.

You must be able to see a reward.

Or at least, know the reward is coming.

Weight loss typically occurs over a long period of time. Seeing results is far from immediate, and the lack of immediate rewards can prevent dopamine release.

And maintaining weight is often not viewed as a goal. So when individuals lose weight and successfully reach their goal, dopamine is released and happiness is achieved for their hard work.

But over time, seeing your weight remain unchanged, despite representing a healthy weight, can lead to a loss of feeling like you have achieved a reward. Dopamine is no longer released as you step on the scale, motivation dwindles, you stop your altered dietary patterns you view as work and effort, and weight typically comes back.

Others eat a healthy diet in the hopes of preventing long-term, chronic diseases like cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and type II diabetes.

But the avoidance of a disease is hardly the type of activity that stimulates the release of dopamine.

“Hurray! I didn’t develop diabetes today!” It gets hard to keep up that level of enthusiasm, day after day, year after year. At no day do you suddenly reach your reward. The absence of a negative developing is the reward.

But brain research suggests this doesn’t release dopamine, and therefore diet and motivation becomes a weak pairing and an often unproductive method, for maintain healthy eating patterns.

If diet and motivation are a poor combination for shifting to healthy, long-term eating behaviors, then what does?

The science of motivation is incomplete without a discussion of brain research and dopamine response. So motivation itself may be a poor driver for long-term rewards and dietary success.

But that doesn’t mean motivation is completely devoid of a role. It can get you to start down a path of healthy eating – which is monumentally important.

Long-term success, however, needs to focus on a shift in your dietary patterns for life. And dopamine release attenuates over time from repeated behaviors.

Factors other than motivation will drive your success of eating a healthy diet. These can include things like learning to cook and discovering foods and meals that you enjoy and can see yourself eating for the rest of your life.

It includes learning ways to avoid overconsumption of unhealthy foods, or food in general. They may be habits you build in, like serving yourself a meal and storing the leftovers before you even sit down to eat. Or as the Okinawans tend to do, build a practice of whispering hara hachi bu to yourself before meals to remind yourself to stop eating when you are 80% full.

Or learning more about healthy foods, buying them in place of unhealth foods, and simply having them in larger abundance around the house. Finding inexpensive alternatives or a market you enjoy can help.

You can even trick yourself. Brain Wansink of Cornell University has shown that using smaller plates leads us to eating smaller meals.

Having your spouse, family, coworkers, and friends get on board can be difficult but can greatly help. Team support has been shown to greatly improve dietary outcomes.

In short, motivation can help you start eating a healthy diet and on the path to achieving your weight and other dietary goals, but it seldom helps in achieving long-term goals. Brain chemistry simply isn’t on your side in this case.

Success comes from a complete shift in your way of life. Building new habits to move healthy actions out of your direct, mental consciousness, and making things ever easier to eat a healthy diet, will be important for making healthy eating your new way of life and achieving the sort of long-term goals you desire.

For a great synopsis on the neurobiology of behavior, I recommend Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, by Robert M. Sapolsky.

Intake’s mission is to improve global health through data-driven nutrition. Our blog provides information, education, tools, and tips about all things related to nutrition, including healthy eating, disease prevention, peak performance, and personalization. Sign up for alerts on new posts and product updates!



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