Is stress holding back your weight loss? Experts say the key to shedding pounds is a clear mind

WHEN are you most vulnerable to a snack attack?

Is it when you're nice and relaxed, sunbathing in your back garden? Or is it after seven hours of back-to-back stress at work?

For loads of us, it just takes one colleague to waft a box of biscuits vaguely in our direction or mention after work pints and we can't say "no".

And that's because it's actually harder for us to ignore fast food and booze when we've got stuff on our minds.

Scientists from UNSW have been working out why it's so hard to ignore unhealthy foods.

Feeling stressed and overworked to blame

They found that feeling stressed, tired or overworked makes it almost impossible to ignore cues that signal something rewarding.

"We knew already that participants find it hard to ignore cues that signal a large reward," says study lead Dr Poppy Watson at UNSW.

But this experiment finally proved that ignoring those cues becomes harder as soon as you have to perform a task while having other stuff on your mind.

Dr Watson explains: "We have a set of control resources that are guiding us and helping us suppress these unwanted signals of reward.

"But when those resources are taxed, these become more and more difficult to ignore."

Cut the distractions

Up until now, experts didn't know whether failure to ignore cues was something we could control or not.

But now it turns out that we can control it…by not being distracted or stressed.

The more tuned in, focused and relaxed we are, the better we can regulate our emotions.

"Now that we have evidence that executive control processes (the parts of our brain that let us focus) are playing an important role in suppressing attention towards unwanted signals of reward, we can begin to look at the possibility of strengthening executive control as a possible treatment avenue for situations like addiction," says Dr Watson.

Hard to ignore cues

Scientists got participants to look at a screen that contained various shapes including a colourful circle.

They were told that they could earn money if they successfully located and looked at the diamond shape, but that if they looked at the coloured circle, they wouldn't receive the money.

They were also told that blue circle would earn them a higher amount of money than an orange circle, if they completed the diamond task.

Scientists then tracked their eye movements to see where they were looking.

"Study participants found it really difficult to stop themselves from looking at cues that represented the level of reward—the colored circles—even though they were paid to try and ignore them," Dr Watson says.

"Crucially, the circles became harder to ignore when people were asked to also memorize numbers: under high memory load, participants looked at the colored circle associated with the high reward around 50 per cent of the time, even though this was entirely counterproductive."

Getting rid of distractions can help

The study found that people essentially need to have no distractions if they stand a chance at ignoring unwanted cues of reward like cash or food.

"This is especially relevant for circumstances where people are trying to ignore cues and improve their behavior, e.g. consuming less alcohol or fast food," says Dr Watson.

"There's this strong known link between where your attention is and what you eventually do, so if you find it hard to focus your attention away from reward cues, it's even harder to act accordingly."

And that explains why so many of us struggle with healthy eating when we're stressed.

Worry stops you from concentrating

"Constant worrying or stress is the equivalent to the high-memory load scenario of our experiment, impacting on people's ability to use their executive control resources in a way that's helping them manage unwanted cues in the environment."

Dr. Watson advises people to try and be strategic about exposure to cues.

"If you are under a lot of cognitive pressure (stress, or tiredness) you should really try and avoid situations where you'll be tempted by signals.

"You need to be in the right frame of mind to be in a situation where you can stop yourself from getting distracted and going down a path where you don't want to go," she says.

So, what can you do about it?

The authors say that you've got to strenthen your mental resolve.

Dr Watson concluded:"In the clinic, training attentional focus away from pictures of alcohol towards soft drinks has been shown to reduce relapse in alcoholic patients.

"However, the exact mechanisms of how this works are still unclear and we need more research to figure out how exactly we can use executive control to our advantage."

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