“Obesity is a problem of choice,” said neurologist Alain Dagher. “We need to think of the brain as being central to obesity.”
(Photo by Renée Comet/Stockfood)
Tempted to munch on potato chips instead of carrot sticks? You’re not weak — your brain is just naturally driven to favor caloric foods. A new McGill University study, published in the journal Psychological Science, found that our brains tend to favor the more calorie-dense option when choosing between foods.
Here’s the interesting (and scary) part: Our brains seem to implicitly know which foods are packed with calories — no nutrition labels required. This was made evident in the study when people were asked to decide how much they’d pay for junk foods, such as chocolate and chips, as well as healthy options, such as fruits and vegetables. Despite being poor judges of how many calories these foods actually contained — probably because none of the study participants had ever dieted — they were still willing to shell out more cash for the high-calorie items.
So how does your noggin know, even if you’re oblivious to nutritional facts? “It’s most likely through experience,” study author Alain Dagher, a neurologist at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, told Yahoo Health. Whenever you eat, nutrients enter your bloodstream and make their way to your brain. As a result, “our brains learn what nutrients are present in the foods we consume,” he said. “This is necessary, because humans are omnivores — we eat all kinds of things. So our bodies have to tell us what we need so that we shape our diets.” If you start craving salt, for example, it may be your brain’s way of telling you that your body’s supply of the mineral is lacking.
When you’re making food choices — say, between chocolate cake and celery — an area of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex weighs in. “It’s the part of the brain that calculates value,” said Dagher. When the researchers performed brain scans on the people bidding on foods, this region lit up. “In our study, that area of the brain tracked caloric density,” he said. “This suggests that the caloric density of food is what determines the value.” Read: This part of the brain is not considering vitamin C or protein — it’s focused on getting the most caloric bang for your buck.
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Problem is, in this era of overconsumption, we don’t need more calories constantly. But our brains are still driven to load up when the opportunity presents itself. “If you come across a plentiful food supply, you can consume that food now, store the calories as fat, and then you’ll have them to burn later on,” Dagher explained. “This was advantageous until maybe 30 years go. It’s only recently that we have very cheap food year-round.”
This natural tendency means that even if you’ve memorized the calorie counts of every food in the supermarket, you still may not always choose the healthier options. “People who go on a diet usually consult the labels. Yet they still have great difficulty losing weight,” Dagher told Yahoo Health. “So even though you might know what’s healthy and unhealthy, you might still be making wrong choices.”
Translation: Your brain’s drive to consume calories (and lots of ‘em!) may be strong enough to override your desire to slim down, possibly explaining why calorie counts on menus have been shown to have little effect on what people eat. “Obesity is a problem of choice,” said Dagher. “We need to think of the brain as being central to obesity.”
You don’t just have to stand by and let your brain do the picking, though. Try these strategies to override your natural impulse to choose the calorie-dense options:
Don’t shop hungry
If you’ve ever stopped at the supermarket after work — and before eating dinner — you’ve probably noticed that your cart miraculously filled up with foods you never intended to buy. “How hungry you are will impact your decisions,” said Dagher. “The hungrier you are, the more likely you are to be drawn to the high-calorie option.” If you head to the supermarket only after you’ve eaten, you’re likely to walk away with much healthier foods, rather than caving to your brain’s craving for calories, he said.
Write a shopping list—and stick to it
Don’t count on yourself to read every label in the middle of the supermarket aisle. Instead, write down your battle plan beforehand — and commit to buying only the foods you’ve jotted down, so you’re not swayed by the sight of yummy, high-cal foods.
Pick up an item not on your list? Put it in the small front section of your cart. At the end of your stroll around the store, revisit any items you’ve placed in that section. “That gives you another decision-making point,” said Katie Rickel, a licensed clinical psychologist at Structure House, a residential weight loss facility in Durham, N.C. “If you have a lot of items in that small part, it’s a strong visual cue for you to say, ‘OK, do I really want to buy all these things?’”
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Eat at regular intervals
When you’re famished, you’re more likely to order that double cheeseburger with fries, instead of making the more sensible, nutritious choice. That’s why it’s so critical that you eat regularly, before your tummy is really growling, said Rickel. An easy way to make sure that happens: Map out your day of eating ahead of time. “You know what your food landscape is going to look like,” she said. “Then it’s more obvious to you if you deviate.”
Establish healthy habits
Is snacking your problem area? Then establish a personal policy to deal with it — for example, tell yourself, “When I’m hungry at home, I will eat an apple, instead of potato chips like I normally do.” Then actually eat that Granny Smith, every single time. “You’re trying to train yourself to override your drives,” Dagher said. “It becomes effortless, like riding a bike.” In other words, your new habit may eventually become as ingrained as your brain’s tendency to pick caloric foods, potentially dampening your natural desires.