Willpower is not the key to weight loss, your brain plays a big role, study says

  • Weight loss success is often attributed to willpower
  • However, researchers found links between the brain and stomach cells that prove otherwise
  • Our brain's wiring plays a bigger role in successful weight loss than previously thought

A strong association was made between self-monitoring and weight loss in a previous study, which means that ideas around successful weight loss were strongly associated with the application of willpower.

Self-monitoring stems from self-regulation theory, which involves being able to control one’s own feelings and behaviours, including choices that are health-related. Researchers at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev have, however, found evidence that proves otherwise.

They found a connection between parts of the brain and the gastric basal electric rhythm (electric changes in the stomach cells that indicate hunger and satiety). It appears that this connection between the brain and stomach is strongly linked to future weight loss. A trial was conducted to test the validity of this theory.

The study

Ninety-two participants above the age of 30 were included in the study. They were chosen based on their waist circumference (which was above 102cm for men and above 88cm for women) or dyslipidemia (an abnormally high fat content in the blood). Participants also had to undergo an executive function battery.

They then underwent a six-month-long intervention which involved random division into three groups: physical activity; physical activity and Mediterranean diet; physical activity and polyphenol-enriched Mediterranean diet.

Weight measurements were taken before and after the intervention and MRI scans of the subjects were taken. The aim was to see whether subnetworks in the brain could support successful weight loss.


Researchers discovered a connection between networks in the stomach related to hunger and satiety, and weight loss. Based on the intervention and MRI scans, the study found that there is a strong link between visual representation and weight loss, as seeing food led to higher activity in the visual part of the brain. 

These findings are the first of their kind to provide evidence that weight loss is more closely connected to visual functions in the brain than willpower, and also that seeing food triggers a desire to eat.

Authors of the study expressed that “these intriguing results may have important implications for our understanding of the aetiology of obesity and the mechanism of response to dietary intervention”.

Image credit: iStock

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For only R75 per month, you have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today.
Subscribe to News24
Voting Booth
Have you entered our Health of the Nation survey?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
29% - 9758 votes
71% - 24110 votes