With a myriad of cooking shows on television, we’re a culture that worships food. But the CDC reports that 33.8% of U.S. adults and 17% of children and adolescents are obese. In this era of gourmet magazines and foodies, how is it possible that we have so much trouble eating well?
Fortunately, neuroscience has something new to say about making the right decisions regarding what to eat. (And no, it’s not a new fad or 24/7 cabbage soup either!) Researchers from the California Institute of Technology report that simply shifting our attention toward being healthy may make a big difference in the food choices we make. In a paper recently published in the Journal of Neuroscience, they describe that determining what to eat is about more than taste or health benefits or size. Instead, our brains weigh each attribute against with the others.
Neuroeconomists Antonio Rangel, Jonathan Malmaud, and Todd Hare are interested in how our brain makes choices. The ventral medial prefrontal cortex is involved in value-laden decisions and the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is involved when a person uses self-control. In their brain scanning experiment, they observed that when the latter is stimulated, he or she is taking health benefits (as well as taste) into consideration when making food choices.
And here’s the good news… The researchers say there’s a way to promote the use of that very important second brain region through external cues that foster self-control. When subjects in their experiment were merely encouraged to think about “healthiness” as they decided what food to pick, they were less likely to choose unhealthy foods–regardless of whether they considered them “tasty.” They also said “no” to options more often.
In other words, the science suggests that eating healthy may be based on our state of mind. No it’s not a weight loss plan, but in terms of overall health, it appears that when we think healthier, we’re more likely to consciously choose to be healthier.