The old joke, “I’m on the see food diet; I see food and I eat it” actually turns out to be pretty accurate. New research from the University of Southern California finds that looking at photos of fattening foods and drinking sweetened beverages stoked tests subjects’ appetites.
Previous studies have found that foods ads make us think about eating, but this study also focused on perceived hunger and the desire to eat. Using MRI imaging scientists looked at the brain responses of 13 obese women ranging in age from 15 to 25 as they viewed images of hamburgers, cookies, and cakes, as well as healthy options like fruits and vegetables. After seeing each food, the subjects rated their level of hunger and their desire to eat on a scale from zero to 10. Halfway through the experiment each woman also drank a sugary beverage. As suspected, the scientists found that the photos of decadent foods stimulated the areas of the brain tied to reward. But they also found that the sugar drinks upped the subjects’ hunger ratings, as well as their desire to eat savory foods. If you’ve ever sipped a soda then suddenly felt the urge to eat chips or order a pizza maybe you’ve experienced this firsthand. So what can you do?
First cut back or cut out sugary drinks and reach for more water—good old H2O may even help you lose weight. A recent study found that adults who gulped two cups before meals lost 40 percent more weight over 12 weeks. The same group of scientists previously found that subjects who drank two cups before meals naturally consumed 75 to 90 fewer calories, an amount that could really snowball day after day. If you don’t like the taste of plan water add a slice of lemon, lime, or a little bit of any in-season fruit, like a few juicy peach wedges.
Also, reduce your exposure to brain-stimulating images of food. While watching TV, get into the habit of distracting yourself during commercials. Spend that time playing with your pet, unloading the dishwasher, folding laundry, or choosing your outfit for the next day. And if you feel triggered when grocery shopping, consider bringing a buddy. When alone many of my clients feel extremely vulnerable, especially in the snack and candy aisles or bakery. But shopping with someone else, especially someone with the same health goals, allows them to maneuver the store without giving into foods they’ll later regret eating.
So what’s your take on this study? Do you feel triggered by food ads and have you ever noticed an increase in hunger or the desire to eat after sipping a sugary drink? How do you avoid image-induced unhealthy eating? Please tweet your thoughts to @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine.
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.