How Stimulus Narrowing Supports Healthy Weight Loss Behaviors

September 21, 2015

If you touch something hot, like a stovetop burner or scalding water, what do you do? You pull away from it of course! In scientific terms, this is a classic example of the stimulus-response concept in practice. The burner or the water is the stimulus, and you pulling away is the response.

But the stimulus-response concept doesn???t just show up in our daily lives in obvious ways like reacting to a hot stove. It actually exists in ways that we can???t readily detect, and nowhere is this more apparent than in our response to the stimulus of food.

What researchers have discovered is that a high level of food stimulus is correlated with increased consumption and higher body mass index (BMI). In other words, the more access you have to large quantities of a wide variety of foods, the more likely you are to eat more and gain weight. Your response to the food stimuli is ???eat more.???

In a simple study from John???s Hopkins University, participants were offered one flavor or three flavors of yogurt. Participants that were given a choice of three ate 23% more yogurt than the group that only had one option.

Now, think about your daily life, especially if you live in the United States. You may not be fully aware of the amount of food and food-related messages bombarding you, but they are most certainly there. And with that type of access to food choices ??? especially ones that are high in unhealthy sugars and sodium ??? it???s no wonder many of us have a hard time resisting. And if you suffer from food addiction or binge eating disorder, the effort to lose weight may be even harder.

The good news is that the opposite of high stimuli has proven to be an extremely effective method for counteracting increased eating and weight gain. This concept is called ???stimulus narrowing.??? Very simply, it is an approach that reduces a person???s involvement with food as much as possible while he or she learns to develop new behaviors and attitudes around eating.

Stimulus narrowing aims to help us gain more control over our relationship with food. It supports behavioral counseling to effectively teach long-lasting healthy habits that encourage successful weight loss and maintenance.

A trained medical weight loss provider can prescribe a program that has stimulus narrowing at its foundation, but here are a few practical things you can do start to train your brain to respond appropriately to food.

Limit Food Variety. Meals that have limited variety reduce the amount of exposure to the triggers that can lead to overeating. As an example, if you have a different dinner every night of the week, try repeating the meal a few nights to reduce your brain???s chance to respond, ???I want more!???

Make Your Food Look Good, But Not TOO Good. It should be no surprise that foods that are highly attractive tend to be eaten in greater amounts. This doesn???t mean it needs to look or taste bad. For instance, one way to reduce the ???attractiveness??? of a cheeseburger is to separate the majority of cheese from the meat. In its ???au naturel??? state, you will be able to calm your brain to gain more awareness and control over what you eat. Meals should leave you feeling satisfied but not over-stimulated. It???s important to your weight and health to strike that balance.

Be Prepared In High Food Stimulus Environments. This involves a lot of awareness in recognizing situations that lead to food stimulation. It???s wise to take inventory of when you might find yourself eating more than usual due to easy access. This might include:

  • Eating while watching TV
  • Overeating when around a certain friend
  • ???Picking??? food in the office break room, free samples in the grocery store of finding snacks that may be available in the house (e.g., candy bowl)

Some suggestions for how you might alter behaviors:

  • Chew gum or suck on sugar-free candy while watching TV
  • Meet friends in a non-food setting
  • Stick to a grocery list and avoid snack aisles

It???s not a popular idea to narrow food choice, but science says it is a proven way to facilitate weight loss and healthy behaviors. So if you???re serious about gaining control over weight, that choice is yours.

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