Your Brain Can Help You Eat Better: Article Summary

I was reading an interesting article in one of my professional newsletters that listed key points from a seminar entitled “Your Brain Can Help You Eat Better” which was held at Harvard Medical School.  At this seminar researchers discussed how the brain influences our food choices and the following are some of the key points that I think are worth sharing:

  • Imagined food consumption affects actual food consumption: Carey Morewedge, PhD of Marnegie Mellon Business School.
    • If we imagine eating a food, we eat less of it
    • If we watch TV while we eat, it takes longer to receive pleasure from food.  Therefore, we tend to eat more to feel satisfied.
      • My advise: Pause for a minute before you eat and think about the food you are going to be eating.  Pay attention to the food when you eat it, chew it, taste it, enjoy it and then move on.  You will get more pleasure from eating and require less food.

  • Humans have limited resources when it comes to self-control: Kathleen Vohs, PhD of Univeristy of Minnesota.
    • “Self-control is taxing and reduces our control over eating.”  If you use more self-control throughout the day, you won’t have much left at the end of the day.
    • You can save up your self control by creating habits vs. making things choices.  For example, if you make exercise a habit you will be more likely to do it than if you make it a choice because it requires less self regulation.
    • People have to make 200 food decisions daily, which can deplete the ability to exert self-control.
      • My advice:  try to create a healthier environment so you don’t have to make so many difficult choices, that way you don’t have to use up as much of your self-control reserves.
  • Food marketing affects our choices: Jennifer Harris, PhD, MBA of Yale Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
    • Food ads can lead to impulsive consumption.  Children who watched TV with 4 ads for food ate 45% more goldfish crackers (~100 calories) than kids who watched 4 ads for games.
    • When food marketers use a character (i.e. Superman) 52% of preschool children said the food tastes better.  Only 10% thought it tasted better without the character.  The remainder of the children didn’t perceive a difference in taste.
    • When Pepsi marketed more of its healthy products, sales of the unhealthy products dropped…stockholders complained.
      • My advice: marketing works, so try to limit your exposure to advertisements for food (especially if visual cues are a strong trigger for you).  You can do this by changing the channel or doing an alternate activity during advertisements (i.e. do a crossword puzzle or sort mail).  You could also DVR your shows and fast-forward through the ads or better yet, limit TV time.
  • Insight on how to stop the overeating: David Kessler, MD of San Francisco Medical School.
    • Rats fed rat chow maintain a normal weight, but those fed a diet high in fat, sugar and salt ended up overweight.  Until these foods were taken away, the rats did not lose weight.
    • Fats and sugar also stimulate humans to eat more.  It is human nature to pick the most highly palatable food present.
      • My advice: Change your home environment.  If the candy bar is in the house, you will probably pick it over the apple.  As you can see, it is our human nature (not a lack of willpower).  Use these findings to set up a strategy for success, and minimize temptation.

Reference:  “Your Brain Can Help You Eat Better Conference Highlights” by Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD.  SCAN’s Pulse Newsletter: Winter, 2012 Vol. 31.