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Lack of Willpower Might Not Be to Blame When Diets Fail

Last month, you started the holiday season with resolve. You swore you’d steer clear of cookies and limit your cocktails to just one — two, tops. And you did, at first. But with each passing party, the call of the cookie tray and the open bar grew louder until, finally, you caved. By the time the new year rolled around, sweets — in the form of baked goods or sugary libations — had become part of your everyday diet. A few pounds later, you’re left wondering: How did I let this happen?

Turns out, weak willpower isn’t completely to blame. In a new paper published in Cognitive Neuroscience, researchers set out to see how the brain’s self-control and reward centers square off when they spot a food signal and how the pathway between those centers might affect your ability to abstain from temptation. To investigate this, they examined the white matter connections inside the minds of 36 women, ages 18–23, with a history of diet failures. They also measured their total body-fat percentages, which ranged between 16.6–38.2%.

THE STUDY

At the start of the experiment, subjects were asked to watch a seven-minute video about Canadian bighorn sheep while trying to ignore words on screen that aimed to distract them. The point of the sheep flick was to get people to let their guard down so their reactions were more natural. Once the ladies loosened up a bit, they were ready for the real examination to begin.

Each woman was hooked up to a functional MRI machine and asked to look at a series of 270 pictures. Two-thirds of the photos were images of people or nature. The other 90 were shots of appetizing food. For every photo that appeared, the women were asked to mark whether it showed something indoors or outdoors. Their answers, however, weren’t what interested researchers, who were really out to monitor the fMRI recordings of their brain activity.

The researchers were primarily concerned with two areas in the brain: the orbitofrontal cortex, which is considered the reward region, and the inferior frontal gyrus, which is associated with self-control and decision making. Images of tantalizing food elicited a greater response from the reward region than the pictures of nature or people. That much was expected. Try as we might to appreciate beautiful scenery, our brains are hardwired to see edible delights as more rewarding. That makes sense on an evolutionary level — a breathtaking sunset won’t keep you alive when you’re starving.

THE AHA! MOMENT

While this feedback was a no-brainer, literally, what intrigued scientists more was the subjects’ responses from the control region of the brain. The IFG also showed heightened activity.

“One interpretation is that dieters are super aware of food cues in every instance,” study author Pin-Hao Andy Chen, a doctoral candidate in cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth College, explained in an email. “They have to constantly regulate (inhibit and monitor) their desires to appetitive food cues in daily life.”

So essentially, in the brains of chronic dieters, food prompted two responses simultaneously. The reward part of their mind was saying “Ooh, good! Eat!” Meanwhile the control part was saying “Nooo! Don’t do it!” If that sounds exhausting — like the brain is arguing with itself — that’s because it is. And there’s a limit on how long the “don’t do it!” section can win. Self-regulation is a limited resource.

“When [dieters] keep doing this, they become more vulnerable to lose control because their regulation resource has been drained,” Chen says.

WHY WHITE MATTER MATTERS

During the analysis that followed the exam, researchers made another interesting discovery. The white matter pathway connecting the reward region (OFC) and control region (IFG) was weaker in people who had higher body-fat percentages. Weaker white matter makes the two sections less able to communicate with each other, which scientists say can also play a role in self-control failures.

“With an inefficient communication between the executive control and reward regions, individuals with reduced [white matter] integrity may have difficulty in overriding rewarding temptations, leading to a greater chance of becoming obese,” the paper states.

What’s clear in this study is that when the white matter link between reward and self-control was weaker, the person was fatter. What’s not clear is why this occurs. Chen speculates it’s possible that all of the dieting failures weakened the pathway. But it’s equally possible that the connection was weak from the get-go and could be causing those lapses in self-control. Chen confirms more studies are need before science will know the answer.

In the meantime, there is good news you can take with you to your next food-heavy party, like Super Bowl Sunday. Some emerging science shows you can improve your white matter through training. Other studies also show that you can develop greater self-control through practice. The takeaway might be that willpower, like any form of strength, must be developed incrementally.

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9 Unexpected Ways to Use Greek Yogurt

By now, you and everyone you know has probably eaten a fair share of trendy superfood Greek yogurt, likely in some pretty traditional ways. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The low-calorie, high-protein ingredient tastes great in classics like smoothies and parfaits, and there’s no denying that.

But those aren’t the only things it’s good for. There are many exciting ways to use this kitchen staple to up the healthy ante on all of your favorite meals—both sweet and savory! Use these nine tricks to give every recipe a bit of extra protein and a subtle Mediterranean flare.

1. SWAP IT INTO ALL THE RECIPES WHERE YOU WOULD NORMALLY USE SOUR CREAM

If you’re obsessed with that sour cream onion dip that’s always at parties (because, like, who isn’t?), but want a lower-calorie option, consider using Greek yogurt instead. In fact, anywhere you might use sour cream (on tacos and salads), you can easily cut down on calories by subbing it in for sour cream.

2. USE IT INSTEAD OF MAYO IN CHICKEN OR TUNA SALAD AND DEVILED EGGS

Abbey Sharp, dietitian and blogger at Abbey’s Kitchen, tells SELF that she likes to replace half the mayo in chicken or tuna salad to boost protein. You can even go as far as removing it entirely as Gimme Some Oven does in this lightened-up chicken salad sandwich recipe. Even try swapping it into deviled eggs if you feel like getting fancy.

3. MIX IT UP INTO A LOW-CAL RANCH DRESSING

Classic ranch typically combines about a cup of buttermilk and 1/4 cup mayonnaise. This recipe from Show Me The Yummy adds Greek yogurt while completely nixing the mayo and reducing the amount of buttermilk to just 1/3 cup. The whole recipe (which makes 1 1/2 cups) is only 206 calories total, while a 2-tablespoon serving of that classic ranch has about 140 calories.

4. MIX IT WITH OATS TO MAKE A MUESLI PARFAIT

Overnight oats are so yesterday…and not just because you made them yesterday. Muesli is the new cool oat-y kid on the block (at least Stateside; in Europe it’s a common breakfast option). What is muesli? you might be wondering. It’s a lot like granola—a combination of raw oats, dried fruits, and nuts—but, unlike granola, it’s entirely raw and best mixed up with some kind of dairy product. That’s where our buddy comes in: Add Greek yogurt to either homemade or store-bought muesli (you can find it at Whole Foods nationwide), mix it up, and dig in. You don’t even have to wait overnight!

5. MARINATE YOUR MEAT IN IT

Have you ever noticed that yogurt chicken is always super tender? There’s a reason for that: According to Epicurious, the active bacteria in yogurt helps break down the meat, making it a great natural meat tenderizer. Sharp likes to combine Greek yogurt, lemon juice, and dried herbs, then use that mixture to marinate either pork or chicken.

6. STIR IT INTO SOUPS

If you want a bit of creaminess (and a little extra protein) in your next soup, top it with a dollop of Greek yogurt. This trick works best in spicy chilis and hearty veggie stews, but you can try it on any recipe you like.

7. BLEND IT INTO GUAC AND HUMMUS (TRUST US)

These tricks are some of Sharp’s favorites. “I add [Greek yogurt] to my guacamole to boost the protein and and stretch the yummy avocado flavor,” she tells SELF. And you can do the same to hummus if you’re looking to eat more protein. Bonus: It gives both of these dips an alluring, tangy bite.

8. USE IT TO MAKE A SLIGHTLY HEALTHIER VERSION OF BOXED MAC AND CHEESE

Yes, there is a way to make mac and cheese healthier, and, of course, it involves Greek yogurt. If you’re making boxed mac and cheese (SELF loves these brands), swap the ’gurt in for melted butter. It’ll still give your pasta that moist, creamy texture, with fewer calories and a tangier flavor.

9. ADD IT TO PANCAKES AND MUFFINS

This is a great way to get more protein into breakfast treats that are otherwise low in important nutrients. We especially love the way Crème De La Crumb uses Greek yogurt in this pancake recipe, and how it’s used in these chocolate chip muffins from Well Plated.

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HIIT for Beginners Week 3: Kickboxing Intervals

WELCOME TO HIIT FOR BEGINNERS!

Today’s session features a kickboxing-inspired interval training session that can easily be done in a small space at home. In the workout video below, we’ll perform a few rounds of intervals that alternate between periods of higher intensity with active rest, and we’ll review proper punching form and technique as we go — no previous kickboxing experience is required. I’ll show you both high- and low-impact options so you can make the moves work for you. Listen to your body throughout the sessions, and modify or skip any moves that are too much for your current fitness level. (I’ll also provide options throughout the routines to help you make it work for you.)

HIIT FOR BEGINNERS WEEK 3: KICKBOXING INTERVALS

This workout can be logged as “Calisthenics” in your MyFitnessPal app.

Tell us when you’ve completed this week’s workout. Share it in the comments below, or tag us in your check-ins @MyFitnessPal so we can cheer you on!

Here is your Week 3 Workout Schedule:

Day 1: HIIT for Beginners: Kickboxing Intervals

Day 2: Total-Body Strength Training (try this 30-minute session)

Day 3: Active Rest Day

Day 4:  Moderate-Intensity Cardio (walking, cycling or try this steady-state session)

Day 5: HIIT for Beginners: Body-Weight Strength Circuit

Day 6: Stretching or Flexibility Work (try this 8-minute total-body stretch)

Day 7: Active Rest Day

Looking for a full at-home program that includes everything from high-intensity interval training to total-body strength training, brain fitness, prehab exercises and more? Check out “Walk STRONG: 6 Week Total Transformation System!” This balanced program has everything you need to succeed, including online support and accountability. Save 20% when you use the exclusive MyFitnessPal promo code “3Z74EZAT” at checkout on Amazon.com.

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12 Batch-Cooked Meals Under 350 Calories

Why prep meals every day when you can prep them once a week? That’s what batch cooking is all about — dedicate a few hours each week to your shopping, prepping and cooking for all your meals and snacks. You’ll save time and money! To get you started, here are 12 meals and snacks that will hold up well if you make them ahead of time.

1. HEARTY BLACK BEAN QUESADILLAS | BUDGET BYTES

These freezable quesadillas are great for busy days. Bursting with colorful veggies, taco spices and, of course, plenty of cheese, they’re super filling. Choose no salt added beans to control sodium levels. Recipe makes 10 servings.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 243; Total Fat: 7g; Saturated Fat: 4g; Monounsaturated Fat: 2g; Cholesterol: 15mg; Sodium: 501mg; Carbohydrate: 37g; Dietary Fiber: 7g; Sugar: 2g; Protein: 11g

2. FREEZER OATMEAL CUPS | CUPCAKES AND KALE CHIPS

This recipe is as easy as 1, 2, 3! Make oatmeal ahead of time then put in muffin tins, sprinkle with your favorite toppings and pop in the freezer. On busy mornings, all you have to do is reheat them. Pair with scrambled eggs and sautéed spinach to make this meal even more wholesome. Recipes makes 6 servings at 4 freezer cups each serving.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 240; Total Fat: 4g; Saturated Fat: 0g; Monounsaturated Fat: 0g; Cholesterol: 4mg; Sodium: 96mg; Carbohydrate: 44g; Dietary Fiber: 4g; Sugar: 16g; Protein: 8g

3. SKINNY SPINACH LASAGNA | PINCH OF YUM

Lasagna is ideal not only for big family meals but also as leftovers that can last the whole week. Filled with the usual layers of sauce, noodles and cheese, this lasagna also packs in spinach, along with 18 grams of protein per serving. Bonus: It uses no-boil noodles to save a step! Recipe makes 12 servings.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 261; Total Fat: 11g; Saturated Fat: 5g; Monounsaturated Fat: 2g; Cholesterol: 47mg; Sodium: 490mg; Carbohydrate: 22g; Dietary Fiber: 2g; Sugar: 3g; Protein: 18g

4. ZUCCHINI NOODLE BOLOGNESE | DOWNSHIFTOLOGY

Make this bolognese paired with zucchini noodles for a tasty weeknight dinner that is also gluten- and grain-free. To keep your dish tasting great, keep the “zoodles” and sauce separate until ready to eat. (And note that zucchini noodles will stay fresh for only a couple of days, so plan accordingly.) Recipe makes 4 servings.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 350; Total Fat: 14g; Saturated Fat: 5g; Monounsaturated Fat: 6g; Cholesterol: 71mg; Sodium: 251mg; Carbohydrate: 30g; Dietary Fiber: 8g; Sugar: 11g; Protein: 32g

5. 1-MINUTE BERRY PEANUT BUTTER SMOOTHIE FOR TWO | MYFITNESSPAL’S RECIPES

Smoothies are quick grab-and-go meals in the morning. Prepare smoothie packets ahead of time with your favorite fruits and vegetables, and store in the freezer. In the morning, just blend a packet with one cup of liquid, and enjoy! (This can help prevent berries and bananas going bad quicker than you can use them.) Recipe makes 2 servings at 1 cup each.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 156; Total Fat: 8g; Saturated Fat: 1g; Monounsaturated Fat: 0g; Cholesterol: 1mg; Sodium: 57mg; Carbohydrate: 19g; Dietary Fiber: 7g; Sugar: 9g; Protein: 5g

6. LIGHT FREEZER BREAKFAST SANDWICHES | FAVORITE FAMILY RECIPES

Need a breakfast that is portable, warm and filling? These breakfast sandwiches are easy heat-and-eat meals in the a.m. With eggs, sausage and cheese, these are just like the ones from the drive-thru, only lighter! Each sandwich has less than 240 calories and is high in protein, too. (Tip: Add the optional tomato slice after thawing and reheating your sandwich.) Recipe makes 24 servings at 1 sandwich each.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 234; Total Fat: 9g; Saturated Fat: 4g; Monounsaturated Fat: 1g; Cholesterol: 101mg; Sodium: 411mg; Carbohydrate: 18g; Dietary Fiber: 2g; Sugar: 3g; Protein: 19g

7. GUACAMOLE TURKEY BURGERS | THE GARLIC DIARIES

Burgers don’t always have to be a guilty pleasure. These burgers are made with lean ground turkey and flavored with lots of spices, then topped with plenty of rich, creamy guacamole — a source of healthy fats. Tip: Make the burgers ahead of time, but whip up the guacamole just before eating since avocados turn brown quickly. Recipe makes 3 servings at 1 patty and 1/3 avocado mixture each.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 306; Total Fat: 22g; Saturated Fat: 4g; Monounsaturated Fat: 10g; Cholesterol: 91mg; Sodium: 479mg; Carbohydrate: 7g; Dietary Fiber: 5g; Sugar: 1g; Protein: 23g

8. WHOLE-WHEAT OATMEAL PANCAKES | SALLY’S BAKING ADDICTION

Want to eat your favorite weekend brunch pancakes on weekdays as well? You can, with these fluffy, whole-grain pancakes. Make a batch of pancakes, and layer them on a baking sheet. Then, freeze until firm. Transfer to sandwich bags, and freeze until ready to use. All you have to do in the morning is to heat them up in the microwave. Recipe makes 4 servings at 2 pancakes each.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 96; Total Fat: 2g; Saturated Fat: 0g; Monounsaturated Fat: 1g; Cholesterol: 23mg; Sodium: 117mg; Carbohydrate: 18g; Dietary Fiber: 2g; Sugar: 3g; Protein: 3g

9. HEARTY BUTTERNUT SQUASH VEGGIE CHILI | FIT LIVING EATS

In winter, warm up with the perfect meal: a hearty bowl of chili. Loaded with butternut squash and two kinds of beans, this chili is rich in satisfying fiber and protein. You won’t even notice that it’s both vegan and gluten-free. Eat it as is (with your favorite chili fixings), or load it up on baked sweet potato. Recipe makes 4 servings.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 298; Total Fat: 4g; Saturated Fat: 1g; Monounsaturated Fat: 3g; Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 435mg; Carbohydrate: 50g; Dietary Fiber: 15g; Sugar: 6g; Protein: 14g

10. EASY FAJITA CHICKEN BAKE | THE PINNING MAMA

Chock-full of colorful peppers, chicken and cheese, this fajita chicken bake is a quick and simple dinner that is sure to satisfy your Mexican cravings. Pair this dish with rice, beans or tortillas for a complete meal. Recipe makes 6 servings.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 167; Total Fat: 7g; Saturated Fat: 2g; Monounsaturated Fat: 2g; Cholesterol: 48mg; Sodium: 138mg; Carbohydrate: 4g; Dietary Fiber: 1g; Sugar: 2g; Protein: 20g

11. GLUTEN-FREE CHOCOLATE OAT MUFFINS | MYFITNESSPAL’S RECIPES

Simple and easy, these gluten-free chocolate-banana muffins are great to pack for work or the gym. Naturally sweetened with bananas and honey, each chocolatey muffin is loaded with complex carbs to keep you satisfied longer. Recipe makes 12 servings at 1 muffin each.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 250; Total Fat: 10g; Saturated Fat: 1g; Monounsaturated Fat: 4g; Cholesterol: 31mg; Sodium: 115mg; Carbohydrate: 37g; Dietary Fiber: 5g; Sugar: 11g; Protein: 7g

12. FREEZER-FRIENDLY BREAKFAST BURRITOS | THE KITCHN

Make mornings less hectic by having a batch of these freezer-friendly breakfast burritos on hand. Filled with eggs, cheese, veggies and potatoes, these burritos will be sure to keep you full until lunch. You can customize them by adding any of your favorite ingredients: Try potato-chorizo, spinach-feta or roasted veggie-black bean burritos. Recipe makes 12 servings.

Nutrition (per serving): Calories: 301; Total Fat: 15g; Saturated Fat: 5g; Monounsaturated Fat: 5g; Cholesterol: 196mg; Sodium: 501mg; Carbohydrate: 27g; Dietary Fiber: 1g; Sugar: 2g; Protein: 13g

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