Why your brain makes you reach for junk food

October 20, 2014

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."

Decisions about food consumption and caloric density are linked to a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area that encodes the value of stimuli and predicts immediate consumption.

Understanding the reasons for people's food choices could help to control the factors that lead to obesity, a condition affecting 1 in 4 Canadian adults and 1 in 10 children. Obesity is linked to many health problems including high blood pressure, heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Treating Canadians who have these problems costs billions of tax health dollars.

This work was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

Link to paper in Psychological Science (publication of the Association for Psychological Sciences): http://pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2014/10/08/0956797614552081.abstract

The Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital, is a unique academic medical centre dedicated to neuroscience. Founded in 1934 by the renowned Dr. Wilder Penfield, the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital is recognized internationally for integrating research, compassionate patient care and advanced training, all key to advances in science and medicine. The MNI is a research and teaching institute of McGill University and the MNH forms the basis for the Neuroscience Mission of the McGill University Health Centre. MNI researchers are world leaders in cellular and molecular neuroscience, brain imaging, cognitive neuroscience and the study and treatment of epilepsy, multiple sclerosis and neuromuscular disorders. For more information, visit theneuro.com.
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McGill University

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