Kent Peterson, senior editor, has also produced award-winning work in television and radio.

Ever feel like it’s tougher for you to lose weight than it seems to be for other people? Maybe it really is.

Recent research suggests many people have an involuntary, automatic response when they see yummy food that could make it harder for them to resist eating it. Seeing mouthwatering food makes their mouth water more than other people’s mouths do—and their heart rate increases too.

But if you’re one of those folks who react so strongly, don’t despair—there are simple strategies that can help you drop those extra pounds and keep them off.

The trouble with treats

Experts have long known that desirable foods like pizza and chocolate trigger brain activity linked to pleasure and reward: we crave good food because it makes us feel good. But if everyone is wired this way, why do some people do better at long-term weight loss than others? The latest research suggests that we’re not all wired in the same way after all.

A team led by researchers at the Universities of Amsterdam and Birmingham studied 65 adult volunteers who were divided into three groups. Twenty-five were obese; 20 had been obese but had successfully lost weight and maintained a healthier weight over time; and 20 had never been overweight.

The researchers showed the volunteers a pizza and measured their saliva production and heart rate. Each of the three groups reacted differently:

  • The obese group salivated more, and their heart rate increased the most. That’s the response that could make it harder to resist digging in to the pizza.
  • The thinnest group had no physical response to the sight of the food.
  • And in the group who had successfully lost weight and kept it off, both heart rate and saliva production actually went down—the opposite of what happened to the obese group.

In a University of Birmingham news release, the study concludes, “Our findings reveal a marked difference in physiological reactivity to food depending on weight-loss history.”

Succeeding at weight loss

This kind of study can’t prove cause and effect, but the findings may help you recognize patterns in your own eating behavior and focus on strategies that could help you achieve better long-term weight-loss results.

What can you do if your body is making weight loss especially difficult? Here are some ideas to help you get started.

Plan ahead. People who plan meals in advance are more likely to eat right than people who eat whatever’s handy when hunger strikes.

Include your favorite foods. Never permitting yourself to eat a favorite food sets you up to feel deprived and miserable. It’s okay to have a little bit of any food occasionally, even a decadent dessert. Just promise yourself to only have a couple of bites—and keep that promise.

Find new favorites. Replace processed foods that are high in calories with healthier alternatives. For example, snack on grapes or low-fat yogurt instead of potato chips.

Watch your numbers. Count calories, plan portion sizes, and weigh yourself regularly.

Fool your eyes. Here’s a simple trick that often works: use a smaller plate for your meals. It takes less food to fill it up and make it look like you’re having a standard-size meal.

Know your habits. Avoid times and places when you know you’re likely to make poor food choices. Hungry at work? Bring a banana so you won’t buy a doughnut. Eating too much when you have dinner in front of the TV? Eat at the dining room table instead.

Sharpen your mental game. Behavior therapy can help you change your thoughts and habits, making it easier to eat the way you know you should. Ask your doctor or a mental-health professional about it. Just a few sessions could make a big difference.

Don’t forget fitness. Physical activity usually doesn’t burn enough calories by itself to achieve a weight goal, but it’s an important part of a successful weight-loss plan. Exercise can help you lose belly fat and strengthen your heart and lungs.

Beware of all-or-nothing thinking. If you slip up on your diet once in a while, that doesn’t mean you failed and it’s time to give up. It means you’re only human and you can keep trying to do better. Keep your eye on your long-term goal.

Encourage and reward yourself. Focus on positive thoughts about your progress. Be proud of what you’ve accomplished so far. Set short-term goals on your way to your long-term goal and give yourself a little non-food treat each time you reach one. It could be watching a favorite movie, spending a day in the outdoors, or whatever helps keep you motivated.

It might take some trial and error to find the diet strategies that help you most. What works for one person may not help another.

Always talk with your doctor before changing your diet. And beware of fad diets or supplements that promise dramatic results. Achieving and maintaining your ideal weight is most likely to happen by cultivating healthier eating habits one small, simple step at a time.

About the study

The research about different physical responses to food was presented in Vienna at the annual meeting of the European Congress on Obesity. Such work is usually considered preliminary until it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal.

What has helped you lose weight—or didn’t help? Share your experience and advice with our community by adding a comment below.