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Hijacking the brain’s reward mechanism

A key component of behavior change is the brain’s reward system, which consists of neurons in the different regions of the brain communicating to one another using dopamine, the feel-good chemical that is released when certain behaviors are deemed pleasurable (i.e., a glass of wine at the end of a long day, a notification ping from social media, sugary substances when we are feeling down or a sense of accomplishment from a job well done).

The very efficient brain, which is always working hard on your behalf to recognize and recall behaviors as pleasurable or painful, is not working against you, but for you. However, because of familial and societal conditioning, and in some extreme circumstances, addiction, the brain’s reward system has been hijacked by some of the above-mentioned behaviors that are dopamine-rich. Because of this very enticing neurological scenario, it is hard to change habits. It is not your fault. Your brain wants the reward.

However, if you want to break a habit and begin to create healthier ones, you must find new rewards that are in alignment with your goals, such as a sense of accomplishment after following your meal plan, the increased energy levels from omitting junk food and drink, or regulated blood sugar levels when following a balanced diet.

Though these rewards are not as instant as the flood of dopamine that a chocolate chip cookie provides in a stressful situation, the sense of accomplishment from resisting temptation or from a great report at your doctor’s visit, is also available and just as rewarding, neurologically speaking.

To put this theory into practice, identify a behavior you want to change, such as dessert after dinner. Every time you abstain from dessert or something sweet after a meal, maybe reward yourself with a gold star on your food journal, which symbolizes the sense of accomplishment that you will feel when you practice the new behavior. It will only be a matter of time when your brain will anticipate and crave the gold star more than the dessert. Not a believer? Try it out. Then, share your great success with your family and friends.

Ashley Lucas has a doctorate in sports nutrition and chronic disease. She is also a registered dietitian nutritionist. She is the founder and owner of PHD Weight Loss and Nutrition, offering weight management and wellness services in the Four Corners. She can be reached at 764-4133.