Viewing calorie information alongside pictures of food changes the way we think about what we’re eating, according to a new study from Dartmouth College, published in PLOS ONE.
The study, which was the first to document how the brain makes food choices when presented with a calorie count, revealed that the brain’s reward system becomes less active while the control system becomes more active when food images appear alongside calorie information.
That hamburger all of the sudden looks a lot less appetizing when a high calorie count is displayed next to it.
Researchers asked 42 participants, between the ages of 18 and 22, to look at 180 food images. The first group of images were presented without calorie information and the second group was presented with calorie information. The participants were then asked to rate their desire to eat the food presented in the image while their brain activity was monitored by a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI).
Overall, calorie-labelled foods were rated lower in desirability and both the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC) areas of the brain decreased in activation. Researchers also found that dieters took caloric value into account even when calorie counts weren’t physically present.
“Our findings suggest that calorie-labeling may alter responses in the brain’s reward system when considering food options,” said first author Andrea Courtney, a former graduate student in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth and a current postdoctoral student at the Stanford Social Neuroscience Lab at Stanford University. “Moreover, we believe that nutritional interventions are likely to be more successful if they take into account the motivation of the consumer, including whether or not they diet.”
The researchers conclude that including calorie information on menus can and will help the public make healthier choices and reinforce the benefits of a healthy diet.
By Olivia Harvey, Earth.com Staff Writer
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