Making healthy decisions regarding what foods we eat and how we live our lives is a known neurological exercise. However, according to a study conducted by researchers at the California Institute of Technology, these decisions are more likely to be made if we focus our attention on the healthy traits of food instead of the way it tastes. Researchers feel confident in the conclusions they made from the study and have noted that we can apply this technique not only to making choices about food, but also about whether we want to pick up a cigarette or not.
When you are faced with a choice regarding food and as you consider what it is you want to eat, your brain subconsciously thinks about not only how the food is going to taste, but also its health benefits, the size of the food, how filling it is, and even its wrapper or packaging. Your brain must compare all these factors in a matter of seconds to determine what you want, and decide which factor is the most important when pitted against the others.
In the study, researchers found that while everyone uses the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) to compare foods and decide what to eat, there is another area of the brain known as the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) that engages when an individual must exert self-control when choosing a food. In other words, when the self-control area of the brain is working, the decision area of the brain can consider various health benefits and the taste of a food when it is trying to determine the food’s overall value. In fact, researchers have concluded that there is a way that you can jumpstart the self-control portion of your brain by responding to external cues, allowing you to show more determination and willpower than you would without the images and messages.
Researchers evaluated 33 adults in a brain-imaging experiment. None of these individuals were on a weight-loss program or diet. Participants were told that they must fast for at least three hours before the experiment began so that researchers could be certain that the participants would be hungry.
Participants were placed into a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine and shown images of 180 various kinds of food, ranging from apples and carrots to cake and cookies using video goggles. They were told that they had three seconds per picture to decide whether they wanted the food and were given a range of possible answers including “strong yes” or “yes” on the positive end, and “strong no” or “no” on the negative end. Once participants had rated each of the pictures, a random image was shown and the volunteers could decide whether the food seemed appealing. If they answered positively, they were awarded that item.
While the experiment seemed simple, before every 10 images, participants were given one of three external cues including “consider how tasty the food is,” “how healthy is this food” or “make healthy decisions.” In other words, out of 180 pictures of food, 60 decisions were made under each one of the external cues. The idea behind this aspect of the experiment was to try to divert the volunteers’ attention away from their hunger and change the conditions under which they made decisions.
After participants finished viewing the images, researchers removed them from the imaging scanner and asked them to rate food on “tasty” and “healthy” scales. This way, scientists could compare choices made within the imaging machine, as well as how participants viewed these choices. For example, a participant might have considered carrots healthy in the scanner when given the external cue of “consider the healthiness of the food,” yet he may not find the food to be tasty.
Researchers were not surprised when they concluded that, overall, participants chose to eat foods they considered healthy and tasty, even though their attention may have been diverted elsewhere. In fact, when participants were asked to consider the healthiness of a particular item, they were, in general, less likely to consume a food that was unhealthy, regardless of whether they considered them tasty. Researchers also concluded that diverting the participants’ attention toward the healthiness of a food caused them to turn down food more often than they would have if they were to make the decision on their own without the imaging scanner.
The study proves that the portion of the brain responsible for making decisions works harder when faced with the health cues of certain foods. Researchers hope that they can apply their findings to other areas of life and help individuals to make better, healthier choices concerning smoking habits and drug use.