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Your Brain On: A Calorie Count

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It seems simple: The menu tells you which items are hefty or healthy in terms of calories, and then you use that information to make smarter healthy eating decisions. But when it comes to your brain and making choices, nothing is simple. That’s doubly true when it comes to choosing what to eat. Here’s a brief rundown of all the unbelievable stuff that’s going on in your head before, during, and after you’re confronted with calorie labels. You’ll never look at a menu the same way again.

The Second Before You Check Out the Menu
Whenever you make a decision, you’re using a brain function called executive control, shows a review study from UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research. And about a thousand different factors—from your genes to how much you slept last night—work in concert to pump up or wipe out your executive control abilities, the UCLA study authors say.

Even if your brain’s rested and operating at full power, distractions (phones, good looking guys across the room) can focus your attention on things other than your food choices, research has shown. That’s bad, because when your brain is on autopilot—a mode of operation brain scientists call non-cognitive processing—most people tend to choose junk over healthy food, the UCLA study shows. Why? Calories are energy. And for most of human history, that energy was hard to come by. As a result, your brain and body are preprogrammed to chase after calories, they add.

As You Peruse the Menu Options
Simply because something’s listed on a menu doesn’t mean you’ll look it, research shows. For example, men are less likely than women to even look at calorie labels, finds a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even more: The same study found only about 12 percent of people who look at calorie info actually take it into account when they make a selection.

More research has also revealed that the ways calories counts appear on a menu make a big difference. Not surprisingly, the larger and more prominent the calorie labels are, the more people will look at them and adjust their food choices, shows a study from the University of Glasgow. (Future you: Get ready for menus dominated by huge calorie counts with teeny tiny item descriptions.)

The way high- and low-cal items are grouped also matters. One study from the Journal of Consumer Research found menus that clump low-cal items together in their own section might actually turn you off from making healthy selections. A lot of people see the “healthy” or “low-cal” section and immediately think, “Eww.” On the other hand, interspersing the healthy options throughout the menu makes you more likely to consider them because your brain doesn’t assume they’ll be gross, the study shows (P.S. These Healthy One-Pot Meals are anything but cringe-worthy!).

When You Make Your Order
As consumers, most people have a sense of what’s good or bad for them regardless of whether calories are labeled, says Brian Elbel, Ph.D., co-author of a New York University paper on calorie labeling. “Also, calorie information is often not enough to overwhelm all the other reasons that people eat unhealthy food, including convenience, taste, and many other factors,” he adds.

Of course, for the calorie-savvy consumer, there are some situations when labeling info can help you separate the good stuff from the junk. Especially if you’re choosing among foods you’re not used to thinking about in terms of calories—flavored coffees, for example—more info is a good thing, research suggests. But when it comes to calorie labeling, the jury’s still out on the best way to help people make smarter decisions about their food choices, the UCLA review study concludes.

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