Can we re-wire our brains to want an apple and not a cake? New research may help us control our deepest desires, says Peta Bee
The closest I have come to torture is this: lying in the dark, cramped chamber of an MRI scanner, my stomach about to eat itself after an 18-hour fast, my head pounding due to a lack of caffeine while, for 60 minutes, images of food and drink are flashed before my eyes.
Here I am, with sensors attached to my right hand that I must press when a new picture appears, rating it on its appeal. Not surprisingly, trifles, espressos and chocolate cake are getting a firm buzz with my thumb, the most positive reaction. Plates of dry lettuce and unadorned cream crackers get the little finger treatment – no thanks.
Even in the wacky world of dieting, this might seem an extreme approach to weight loss. Yet this is cutting-edge science, a study in the emerging field of hedonic hunger, the study of why some people's brains interpret food cues as an urge to gorge and others don't.
In an adjoining room, a team of scientists led by Dr Tony Goldstone, a consultant endocrinologist, is scrutinising scans of my grey matter to discover how and why I might crave one food over another.
Results of this and similar studies are now thought to be hugely significant in the battle of the bulge, so much so that WeightWatchers will this year shift its focus to helping its members overcome mental blocks against weight loss and survive what it calls the "toxic environment" in which we live.
Their latest launch is an app that gives advice according to your location: at work, in the supermarket, at home.
What's troubled WeightWatchers – and other diet providers – for years is why some people find dieting easy and others struggle. Research has led scientists to believe the answers lie largely in the complexities of hedonic hunger.
"Our decisions about eating are based on so many things," says Dr Goldstone. "Parts of the brain controlling cognition, decision making, rewards and motivation, as well as our past experiences, all contribute to why we eat what we eat." He hopes that his new trial will pinpoint the precise mechanisms involved.
One recent study carried out by Prof Patrick O'Neil, director of the weight management centre at the Medical University of South Carolina, confirmed that successful weight loss and the ability to control brain urges to eat calorific food were inextricably linked.
Research shows that some of what Dr Goldstone calls the brain's "hedonic hotspots" seems to become overactive in struggling slimmers, meaning that their urge to indulge is more difficult to overcome. Hedonic sections of the brain are spurred into overdrive when faced with high-calorie foods.
It's not just Weight-Watchers pushing mindful eating measures – rival slimming companies such as LighterLife, Jenny Craig and Slimming World will all employ brain tactics in the next year.
Karen Miller-Kovach, the chief scientific officer for WeightWatchers International, says that from next year all WeightWatchers' members will be taught how to control hedonic hunger.
"We will be encouraging them to focus on changes to their home and personal environment so that they minimise challenging food situations," she says.
Prof Brian Wansink, director of nutritional science at Cornell University, says we make 200 daily food decisions, often without realising it. We are bombarded with offers, images and opportunities to snack wherever we turn.
Our brain can react to the pleasantness of the taste or smell of food, and we frequently mistake the messages that we are satiated and proceed to eat more.
The new WeightWatchers app will act as an angel on the shoulder of dieters. What to do when you fancy picking at the evening meal you are preparing? Chew gum. Should you add that tempting but calorific product to your shopping trolley. No, no, no, add it to next week's shopping list instead.
There are other brain-control strategies to break the habit of overeating: put your fork down and sip water between bites of food; wait several minutes before reaching for seconds; eat all your meals at a table – it has been shown that you are likely to consume far less than if you have a meal on your lap.
Even writing down what you eat in a food diary helps to register your consumption in your brain, Prof O'Neil found.
"It can open your eyes to what you are consuming, and also show you some low-hanging fruit – the easiest calories you can dispense with," he says.
Dr Goldstone hopes that, eventually, understanding hedonics will mean that people learn to eat not for pleasure but because they are hungry.
"If we can understand more about the workings of the brain, then the potential for helping dieters is huge," he says. "It could be that weight-loss plans become individualised once we can predict whether someone will do well with a certain approach or not."
A diet tailored to your brain's unique functionings? It would be the ultimate thinking person's route to slimness.
Here are some of the people and organisations who want to control your mind:
Diet groups are single sex and include between seven and 12 people, with no newcomers allowed after a couple of weeks.
All counsellors work with small groups and use a combination of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) – to help calm the mind and make better decisions – and transactional analysis (TA) that aims to help people break food habits they may have had since childhood.
The Gastric Mind Band and The Hypnotic Gastric Band
Two books out this month: The Gastric Mind Band by Fiona Graham and Marion and Martin Shirran (Hay House) and The Hypnotic Gastric Band by Paul McKenna (Bantam Press) use hypnotherapy techniques to convince your unconscious mind that you have a gastric band.
In both cases, the idea is that you can make your brain believe your stomach is smaller, with the purpose of limiting the amount of food ingested. Accompanying CDs are available.
Jenny Craig (jennycraig.com)
This diet system, based on pre-packaged meals, was launched in the UK a couple of years ago after huge success in Australia and the US. It bills itself as a three-level food-mind-body plan with a big emphasis on tackling the psychological barriers of dieting.
Sign up and you get a weekly, 20-minute, one-on-one consultation with your own diet mentor who will discuss personal mental challenges to weight loss. The consultants use CBT and motivational techniques. Dieters are encouraged to set themselves goals and overcome negative thoughts to reach their desired weight.
Slimming World (slimmingworld.com)
Slimming World has invested a great deal of money in researching why it is that some people maintain weight loss and others don't. The answer? Mental power.
Dr James Stubbs, a researcher with the company, says: "People who successfully keep weight off make intrinsic changes and form new habits. They monitor their appetite and energy intake and remain mindful of any slips to avoid weight regain."
To help dieters identify where they might slip up, Dr Stubbs has developed habit-busting tips that are implemented into the programme.
In addition, group support is emotionally based and aims to develop strategies that help overweight people overcome the "heavy burden of shame, self-criticism and poor self-esteem" that they often feel.