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Brain-Savvy Dieting: Count Joy Points Not Calories

brain-savvy dietingThe command central for weight loss is not the the thinking part of our brain, the part that learns what we should eat. It’s the emotional brain, the part of us that unleashes strong emotional drives to overeat. The breakthrough in a brain-based approach to weight management, emotional brain training (EBT), is to take control of our emotional brain to turn off those drives, so we can eat less because we want less food.

If you hold your ears with your fingers splayed, your holding your emotional brain. That is the unconscious mind and it activates circuits to be sure we feel safe and rewarded. If we can’t find a way to feel safe with positive emotions flowing, the switch in that brain flips and unleashes the drive to overeat.

EBT includes adopting a healthy lifestyle, but the major goal is to keep that switch from flipping, or when it does flip and we have cravings, to switch it back so the cravings fade. The big surprise is that the power to turn off the drive to overeat rests primarily on creating moments of intense natural pleasure in our daily lives.

That might sound like a good thing, however, the brain likes us to be as stressed as we always have been, so it resists changing. It takes a while to get used to stopping the deprivation and starting to see create those pleasurable moments as our weight loss strategy.

Imagine that you are are at work, really stressed, and then go into a meeting where your boss says that your deadline is tomorrow, not next week. The switch in the emotional brain flips to stress mode, and the brain’s reward centers want one thing: sugar. If your brain is trained to response based on traditional diet therapy, your mind will turn to food, then turn to negative thoughts, telling yourself that you shouldn’t have that food.

Yet willpower alone is not enough, because the circuits that cause those strong emotional drives are primitive. On a conscious level, we think we “should” turn down the cookie, that it should not be hard to do.

However, the brain has activated survival drives for comfort foods that make it all but a foregone conclusion that we will overeat. In fact, depriving ourselves just adds more stress, and that stress triggers more overeating.

With emotional brain training, you learn to change those thoughts, and instead of depriving yourself, use mental techniques to spiral out of stress and nourish yourself with something sweeter than cookies or candy: emotional connection to yourself. That emotional connection triggers a surge of oxytocin, which is an appetite suppressant.

In that moment of connection, the food looks like … just food. It tastes good and provides satisfaction, the strong survival circuits that make us overeat when we know we should not fade. Food stops being our refuge and our source of love because we get our love and our safety from within.

When I used to diet, I would gird myself for Monday, when my diet would start. I would be in mourning all day Sunday, and now, I can see that I was mourning the loss of my comfort, release and reward from food.

Since then research has explained what I was experiencing. I did not have enough joy in my life. I needed more natural pleasure of watching sunsets, laughing with friends, and especially connecting to the deepest part of me, making that emotional connection within. Now we know that overweight is often a sign of being reward insufficient.

So it makes sense to flip the switch in the emotional brain to stop wanting the extra food before going on a diet. EBT includes the option to take three days (“The 3-Day Vibrancy Plan”) to learn how to reward yourself, as training the brain to release stress and collect moments of joy (“joy points”) takes learning new skills. The initial testing of the plan was promising in that 90 percent of people using the plan reported a decreased drive to overeat in just three days.

We have a lot to learn about overeating, but training the brain out of stress and into joy makes sense based on neuroscience. You might want to try nurturing your spirit with joy rather than stressing yourself out with dieting. Count joy points, not calories and who knows what could happen?


Brain-Savvy Dieting: Count Joy Points Not Calories

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Laurel Mellin, PhD

Dr. Laurel Mellin is a New York Times Bestselling Author. Her new book, Spiral Up! Discover the Power of Simple Tools to Relieve Stress and Feel Good Now is available at Visit for more information.

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APA Reference
Mellin, L. (2019). Brain-Savvy Dieting: Count Joy Points Not Calories. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 25, 2020, from
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Last updated: 15 Mar 2019 (Originally: 19 Sep 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 15 Mar 2019
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