Roots of Temptation-Just Say No?

Thanks to our brain’s complex pleasure/reward system, we all succumb to the pull of food differently. For some, the brain sometimes can’t resist the powerful influence of a fabulous bakery or a plate of French fries, yet others are able to eat a little and stop. But for millions of people, food is never far from their minds. Ever. The current trajectory of the number of obese Americans, along with related disease rates and health care costs, is on course to increase drastically in every state by 2030. The analysis findings, based on a model published last year in The Lancet, show that all 50 states could have obesity rates of more than 44 percent, with medical costs associated with treating preventable diseases soaring from $48 billion to $66 billion per year. By contrast though, according to a study released by Trust for American Health and the Robert Wood Foundation, reducing the average body mass index by just 5 percent could prevent an epidemic. For a 6-foot-tall person weighing 200 pounds, a 5 percent reduction would be the equivalent of about 10 pounds. The good news is that scientists are learning more about the cue-urge-reward-habit cycle of the human brain, so that a 5 percent loss may be quite attainable without entirely giving up your favorite foods.

Neurons and Taste

For some people, certain foods seem to exert a magical pull, writes former Food & Drug Commissioner Dr. David Kessler in his book “The End of Overeating.” The food industry works hard to create high-calorie foods with the most addictive possible combination of intense flavor and “mouth-feel.” In his book, Kessler tells how neurons, the basic cells of the brain, are connected in circuits and communicate with one another to store information, create feelings and control behavior. Tasting tantalizing food stimulates the brain neurons that are part of the opioid circuitry, which is the body’s primary pleasure system. Known as endorphins, these brain chemicals have the same addictive and rewarding effects as morphine and heroin.

The Roots of Temptation

No matter how good the intentions, avoiding fattening foods is always a challenge, and biology is a factor in why it seems so difficult to bypass a bowl of M&Ms. Brain chemicals are in more regions than previously thought. Researchers have traced an unexpected area of the brain in rats that had primarily been linked to movement. This new evidence might help explain why chocolate can be so irresistible and why we binge. Published this week in Current Biology, a Cell Press publication, the research team probed a brain region called the neostriatum, causing the rats to gorge on twice the amount of M&M chocolates than they would otherwise have eaten. The researchers found that a neurotransmitter called enkephalin, a drug-like chemical produced in that same region of the brain, surged as they ate more M&Ms. The chemicals increased their desire and impulses to eat more.

“That means the brain has more extensive systems to make people want to overcome rewards than previously thought,” said Alexandra DiFeliceantonio of the University of Michigan. “The same brain area we tested here is active when obese people see foods and when drug addicts see drug scenes.”

It’s likely that these neurotransmitters wire us for a little overconsumption and addiction. Understanding what triggers overeating and how our neural pathways can stump us can be useful the next time you walk down the potato chip aisle.  Five percent sounds like a good plan.


Harnessing personal strength

The positive psychology movement believes that cultivating what is best in ourselves increases our sense of well-being. Our character strengths and their connection with life satisfaction and happiness is an important research field in positive psychology. A new large-scale study conducted by a team of psychologists from the University of Zurich proved that the largest impact was evident in training the strengths: curiosity, gratitude, optimism, humor and enthusiasm. It’s no surprise that these participants were more often in a good mood and more cheerful.

Rather than focusing on our quirks, the newer field of psychology focuses on how humans flourish. The Positive Psychology Center at the University of Pennsylvania, home to the founder of the movement, Martin Seligman, calls it “the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive.” We all have problems and stresses, but manifesting your strengths can help you increase your happiness, improve your relationships and achieve your life goals.

How happy?

Our temperament and personality traits are partially inborn. Research estimates that the genetic component of happiness is 50 percent inherited, with another 40 percent under our power to control. The final 10 percent depends on circumstances. However, sometimes we don’t even know what will make us happy—we’re too busy worrying about the future or the past. Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, in his book “Stumbling on Happiness,” says that how we feel in the moment colors how you imagine you will feel in the future. We can never really know how things will affect us, and the truth is that bad things, or good, don’t affect us as profoundly as we expect them to.

We have many character strengths, and you might not even realize that you use them naturally and easily, particularly when you set out to do something similar to the values you believe. It is one of the reasons you accomplish goals. According to a study presented at the British Psychological Society, only about one-third of us have a useful understanding of our strengths.

I recently had a look at my signature, middle and lower strengths, available at, a 240-question survey. The questionnaire graphs 24 character strengths and ranks the top five. The classifications derived from six major virtues: wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, temperance and transcendence. For example, an appreciation of beauty, great art or being enthralled by music is a strength that helps to connect with something outside of yourself. It is likely you are empathic or strongly value being grateful, each of which contributes to healthier relationships. You might find spiritual benefits with this strength because you feel a sense of wonder or elevation. You are likely more accepting of the present moment, and this can lead to times of calm and peace.

According to the VIA Institute On Character, a nonprofit organization, “the classification reflects the world’s major religious writings, including the Bible, the Koran, and the Bhagavad Gita, as well as studies of major philosophies.”

As for me, I’m going to take an honest look at my lesser strengths, laugh more and get to work—happily.

Connie Aronson is an ACSM health and fitness specialist. Readers can visit her at

Be present, be happy

A good life: Love & happiness The story goes: a man is driving on a highway listening to the radio, when suddenly there is an announcement:” On the 401, a man is driving in the wrong direction. Use extreme caution.” He looks around and says: “Only ONE person is driving in the wrong direction? There are hundreds of them going in the wrong direction!” Isn’t it so easy to point a finger, get angry, or blame the other guy? Nawang Gehlek Rimpoche, the grand nephew of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama, in his book, Good Life Good Death, sites the dichotomy: we are all basically beautiful human beings, but our particular behavior and attitudes can get in the way of our happiness.

Buddhists believe that you become enlightened when you haven’t a negative thought. Scientists now know beyond a doubt that potent physiological states, like anger, envy or blame, affect our health as much as could high triglyceride. Good health is more than the physical habits of our daily lives. How we experience our lives matters. Factors such as isolation, depression, anger, jealousy and hostility not only rob our true nature of happiness, but can contribute to heart disease. Thoughts can become biology. In her book The Heart Speaks, Dr. Mimi Guarneri tells how suppresses emotions, or ones we are unconscious of, or just simmer on the back burner indefinitely, eventually manifest as physical symptoms. She illustrates how emotionally stressful events, particularly anger, precede and may even trigger the onset of a heart attack.

The heart has an electromagnetic current 60 times higher in amplitude than the field of the brain. It also emits an energy field five thousand times stronger than the brain’s. What, Guarneri asks, if it’s not the brain telling the heart what to feel, but the heart informing the rest of the body? What if, she asks, changing the mind actually involves changing the heart? How can we stop pointing to the other guy, and be here in the present, to allow more happiness in our lives?

Radiate love and appreciation

Anger-provoking situations play havoc on heart rate responses and blood pressure, as we all know. Levels of a protein, IL-6, a maker of inflammation that may cause arterial thickening, and the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine also kick in to push cholesterol and blood sugar levels higher. The heart and nervous system rhythm’s become chaotic, adversely affecting the whole body. Positive feelings, such as love and appreciation produce heart-rhythm coherence, and increased harmony and health, Guarneri writes. Since the heart is the most powerful oscillator in the body, it has the capacity to synchronize other organs in unison. Heart-rate patterns shift to orderly ones when a person enters a loving, appreciative state, she writes. Forgiveness, optimism and gratitude, topics she says would have been dismissed as irrelevant in medical school, are as much a part of heart disease equation as blood levels. A shift in our thinking, filled with gratitude, can help us connect to something larger than our individual experiences, whether to others, nature or a higher power. May this New Year be filled with happiness and big love.

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The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week’s issue.

Connie Aronson is an ACSM Health & Fitness Specialist and an IDEA Elite Certified personal trainer. She is located at the YMCA  in Ketchum, Idaho.