Maybe it’s time to give up the FoodGawker obsession: a recent study from the University of Southern California Keck School of Medicine found that viewing images of high-calorie foods increased cravings for those same high-calorie foods.
In the study, brain responses were measured by fMRIs in 13 obese participants who looked at photos of high-calorie foods, like hamburgers, cookies, and cakes, and low-calorie foods, like fruits and vegetables. After each viewing — high-calorie and low-calorie — the participants rated their hunger and desire for sweet or savory foods on a scale of 1 to 10. During the scans, the participants were given drinks with 50 grams of glucose or of fructose.
The researchers found that, as predicted, the reward centers — the ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens — were more activated when the participants were viewing high-calorie foods, and, as a consequence, the participants had higher cravings for the high-calorie foods. The researchers were surprised to find, however, that when the participants consumed the sugar-heavy drinks, their hunger and cravings for savory food increased even more dramatically (and specifically, that the fructose-filled drink increased cravings more than the glucose-based drink).
According to lead researcher and assistant professor of clinical medicine Kathleen Page, “Our bodies are made to eat food and store energy, and it prehistoric days, it behooved us to eat a lot of high-calorie foods because we didn’t know when the next meal was coming. But now we have much more access to food, and this research indicates added sweeteners might be affecting our desire for it.”
What does this mean for humans, obesity, and our eating habits?
1. Essentially, this study is just one more reason to be completely present and mindful when you’re eating. Nutritionists and dietitians often advise their clients to focus completely on their meal while they’re eating, to “be in the moment” without any distractions. Being mindful of what, and how much, you eat helps you slow down and listen to your body, so you know when you’re full or if you’re really still hungry. Mindfulness even helps improve digestion: according to a study in the journal Gastroenterology, our bodies perceive distraction as stress. When we try to do many things at once – eat, listen to the TV, and check email, for example – digestion is put on hold, and our cells’ ability to break down macro- and micronutrients are impaired. Even worse: the stress response causes excess glucose to be released into the bloodstream, thereby upping the need and release for insulin – which may also create cravings for high calorie foods. So if your distraction of choice is watching Paula Deen on Food Network, scrolling through FoodGawker, or even looking at healthy recipes in Cooking Light, its effect on your diet is doubly negative: your digestion is impaired (which may ultimately lead to weight gain), and those mouthwatering pictures result in more high-calorie cravings (again: weight gain).
2. Letting your mind drift by innocently looking at high-calorie, high-fat foods may not be the only stimulus for high-calorie cravings. Restaurants, coffee shops, bakeries, food trucks and more food establishments are providing the same stimulus as the pictures – just in real life. Imagine that you’ve just been handed your Caramel Macchiato (with 32 grams of sugar) and are waiting to pay. You find yourself right in front of the bakery case, packed with flaky croissants, buttery scones, and exploding-with-toppings muffins – and, even though you came in only to get a java boost, you suddenly have a pastry in your hand! This situation almost exactly mimics the study’s variables: a drink high in glucose and fructose, plus images of high calorie foods.
Unfortunately, restaurants also take advantage of the power of pictures. Chain restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory place pictures of their most profitable dishes – which are usually the dishes highest in calories, fat and low quality ingredients – front and center, enticing diners to order them. And because waiters ask for your drink order before you’ve even cracked open the menu, you’re likely already sipping on a sugary (read: high glucose and high fructose) drink and primed to order a high-calorie entrée.
So what can you do? First, avoid looking at “food porn” when you’re hungry, before a meal, or during a meal. Planning ahead also helps: set aside a treat you can look forward to (for whenever: mid-afternoon, after lunch, after dinner, even after breakfast!). As long as you plan to indulge in this one treat and you have control over it, you’ll have more self-control over cravings that appear throughout the day. (Self Magazine offers a similar concept with their “Happy Calories.”) And if you’re going out to eat at a restaurant, look at the menu ahead of time and decide what you’re going to order. Stick to your choice: don’t let pictures (or your dining companion’s behaviors) affect your choice! Similarly, if you’re headed to the coffee shop, go with the intention of ordering just your java drink of choice. If you’re truly hungry, head back to the office for those healthy snacks you packed!