Eating Healthy vs. Your Own Brain

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There are many, many obstacles to reaching for an apple instead of a candy bar, and a new study out of Canada helps illuminate some of them. To the press release:

Will that be a pizza for you or will you go for a salad? Choosing what you eat is not simply a matter of taste, conclude scientists in a new study at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital of McGill University and the McGill University Health Centre. As you glance over a menu or peruse the shelves in a supermarket, your brain is making decisions based more on a food’s caloric content.

The study, published in Psychological Science, is based on brain scans of healthy participants who were asked to examine pictures of various foods. Participants rated which foods they would like to consume and were asked to estimate the calorie content of each food. Surprisingly, they were poor at accurately judging the number of calories in the various foods, but their choices and their willingness to pay still centered on those foods with higher caloric content.

Earlier studies found that children and adults tend to choose high-calorie food” says Dr. Alain Dagher, neurologist at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital and lead author of the study. “The easy availability and low cost of high-calorie food has been blamed for the rise in obesity. Their consumption is largely governed by the anticipated effects of these foods, which are likely learned through experience. Our study sought to determine how people’s awareness of caloric content influenced the brain areas known to be implicated in evaluating food options. We found that brain activity tracked the true caloric content of foods.”

In other words — and these sorts of comparisons are always a bit oversimplified because of how complicated the brain is — even as you’re trying to eat healthy, there is a tiny (or not so tiny) monster in your brain screaming “Calories! Need calories! Must survive the winter!” And this monster is a tenacious foe responsible for all sorts of irresponsible pizza and ice-cream excursions.