IF YOU find yourself reaching for your fourth mince pie, or fifth custard tart, in one sitting, you may have lost all self-control. Or it could just be the "hedonic pathway of food reward" kicking in.

You may not have heard the term before, but I am sure that like every single one of us, you will have experienced it.

The ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens are physiological terms used for what can be referred to as the pleasure centre of the brain. This is the part of the brain that motivates the reward or pleasure sensation as a result of food intake.

It is the yummy, close-the-eyes, give-me-more-of-that feeling you get when you bite into your favourite dessert that is the hedonic pathway of food reward.

The problem comes in when the palatability overrides the normal hunger and satiety cues, motivating additional intake of food, often high-sugar or fat-containing foods, leading to excessive energy intake.

Research published in the journal Circulation shows that both sugar-containing and high-fat foods mobilise dopamine and opioids in the pleasure centre of the brain (nucleus accumbens) resulting in hard-wired pathways that increase cravings for these specific foods.

These hard-wired pathways make it very hard to say no to the bowl of crisps making the rounds at the Saturday afternoon braai.

As you can imagine, the more you eat these high-sugar, high-fat foods, the more you want them to feed the pleasure centre of the brain. It is an addiction to sugar or fat!

A key component that adds even more fuel to the fire is stress. Cortisol secretion is increased when stress levels are high, thus promoting the consumption of palatable foods as a form of self-medication.

This explains why the vending machine looks more appealing when deadlines are looming and stress levels peak.

The holiday season can propel your eating habits into a downward spiral.

The increased consumption of Christmas cake and silly season feasts will enhance the effects of the hedonic pathway of food reward.

Use these tips to keep your eating in check, and avoid the sugar/fat trap over the upcoming holiday season and beyond:

• Plan meals

The biggest problem with holidays is that your routine is usually lost, and regular meals with healthy snacks are the first to go.

Skipping a meal here and there to "save" kilojoules for treats results in over eating, so rather eat structured meals and allow yourself predefined "pleasure foods".

For example, make a rule for yourself regarding how many treats you will allow each week on holiday and stick to your rule.

Having a plan in place will make it easier to select healthier food options and eliminate haphazard eating.

• Don’t have two bad meals in a row

If you have had a meal that did not go according to plan, and left you feeling uncomfortably full, just make sure your next food choice is healthy.

Just because you have fallen off the wagon of healthy, disciplined eating, should not give you reason to continue to make poor food choices.

Choose good quality foods high in vitamins, minerals and other important nutrients. Add fresh vegetables or fruit to each meal to fill you up, and boost nutrient intake.

• Keep treats small

Foods will always have a pleasure value, and you are likely to enjoy the treats even more over the festive season.

If you do feel like a treat, just aim to keep the portion small, and make sure to have the treat with a balanced meal, rather than eating it on its own.

For example, a few squares of dark chocolate straight after a healthy dinner (of grilled fish with fresh salad) will have a much better effect on your blood glucose control than if you eat a slab of milk chocolate on its own at 10pm. Moderation is key when it comes to selecting treat foods.

• Make your plate work for you

Eat only half the food on your plate, then reassess how hungry you are, before eating the rest.

You need to be aware of your hunger cues, and eat until you feel satisfied, but not overly full.

If you have only eaten a quarter of the plate of food, and feel full, leave it at that.

It is also important to be aware of the amount of food you have eaten at the dinner table, especially when there are serving dishes that are filled to the brim in front of you.

• Don’t drink your kilojoules

During the holiday season, you are likely to socialise a lot more, which often means you drink more.

Along the way, as you continue to drink and be merry, you can easily forget that every glass of wine amounts to the same amount of kilojoules as two slices of bread.

From cold drinks and cocktails, to glasses of wine, the liquids can add additional kilojoules to your total energy intake.

So be selective, and exercise restraint when deciding on your drink of choice.

You can control the quantities that you consume by using smaller glasses, spritzer white wine by adding sparkling water, and filling your glass with ice before you add your selected beverage.

• Claire Julsing Strydom is a dietitian in private practice with Nutritional Solutions.

Light drinking

Try this refreshing summer drink that is low in kilojoules:

Lime and lemon mint spritzer (Serves 8)

1 cup of lime juice

1.25l (5 cups) of chilled sparkling mineral water

¼ cup of freshly chopped mint

Sugar syrup

½ cup of water

½ cup of sucralose-based sweetener

To make sugar syrup, combine the sweetener and water in a small saucepan, stir over heat until sugar dissolves.

Bring to boil, remove from heat; refrigerate until cold.

Pour the sugar syrup, lime juice, mint and sparkling water into a large jug with lots of ice, and serve.

Change this into a cocktail by adding a tot of vodka for a mojito vibe.