We make dozens of food decisions each day, including if to eat, what to reach for, and when to stop. Now a new study sheds some light on just how our brains help us make those choices, and the results can help you transform your relationship with food for good.
Scientists at the California Institute of Technology asked 26 volunteers to refrain from eating for four hours. Then, using MRIs, they measured the volunteers’ brain activity patterns while they decided how much they were willing to pay for different snacks, including healthy options such as veggies and not-so-healthy choices such as chips. The subjects were asked to make their selections under one of three conditions: while attempting to suppress their desire for the food, while trying to increase their desire the food, or while acting normally. After four seconds, the participants placed bids to “buy” the various foods.
Researchers found that two areas of the brain were tied to food choices, based upon a values system. When the volunteers encouraged themselves to want the food, the brain “flipped” after a few seconds to the region tied to desire, and the opposite was true when they focused on not wanting the food.
In a nutshell, each subject’s brain supported the choice correlated with the greatest worth. In other words, if you’re faced with cake, your decision to eat it may depend on what you’re focusing on most: taste or health. That’s empowering because it means, with practice, you can strengthen your desire and ability to choose healthier options.
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This process takes patience, though. At first, you may realize while you’re eating candy, or even afterward, that you didn’t really want it and what you desire even more is to feel energized. Then, after catching yourself a few times, the mental fork in the road will become apparent, and you can make a conscious decision connected to what you value most.
In my practice, I advise my clients focus on positive, empowering outcomes, such as connecting healthy choices to feeling better physically and mentally (better mood and sleep quality; improved energy, endurance, and digestive health; and more confidence), because in my experience, negative reinforcers (like not being "bad") and judgmental thinking often backfire.
Ready to give it a try? Make a short list of results tied to healthy food choices and make a point to connect the dots. For example, when you see veggies, try to consciously think about concrete outcomes tied to eating them that are truly important to you, such as energy. Practicing making these associations will make it easier for your brain to support your actions. That means in the moment, rather than needing to employ “willpower,” a healthy choice will feel intuitive rather than restrictive, and will seem, well, just plain right!
Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.