Put Your Calorie Counting Skills to the Test

Deborah W. Tang, Lesley K. Fellows, and Alain Dagner Behavioral and Neural Valuation of Foods Is Driven by Implicit Knowledge of Caloric Content Psychological Science

Take a moment and guesschoclavacake how many calories are in this dessert to the right. Think you’ve got it? If you’re like me, or most other people, you’re not even close. 500 calories, 700? Try 1270 calories!

Most diets today are structured around calorie counting. Seems like the logical way to lose weight: burn more calories than you consume. However, this method cannot be successful if you underestimate the number of calories in your meal. More importantly, underestimating calories can lead to overeating, one of many factors involved in the rise in obesity rates. Thankfully, researchers at McGill University have started looking into how the brain interprets food.

More specifically, Deborah Tang and her colleagues conducted experiments to try to understand why we are willing to eat highly caloric food even when we know we shouldn’t. In the first study, 29 healthy individuals were shown pictures of popularly liked food items and asked to estimate the number of calories in each. It was no surprise when they found that the estimations were inaccurate. So, what if the brain uses something other than calories to value food items?

Take another look at the image on the top of this page. How much would you pay for it?

This is the next question Tang and herlettuce team asked the same 29 participants. In this study, participants were asked to bid on popular food items based off of their images in an auction-like setting. So, would you pay more for that lava cake pictured above or for this head of lettuce pictured to the right? According to this new research, you would likely pay more for the high caloric density food item (i.e. lava cake) than the low caloric density food item(i.e. lettuce). Caloric density is just another way of saying the amount of calories per gram of a food. So, the lava cake has more calories packed into one bite-full than the lettuce.

Each participant’s brain activity was also monitored during the food auction. Turns out, there’s an area in the brain called the Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex that is active during the bidding process, especially when a participant bid on a high caloric density food (i.e. lava cake).4 In other words, this area of the brain triggers us to want the most calorically dense food for the best price. Our brains are the ultimate bargain hunters, but not necessarily in a good way. The take-home message here is to be aware of our brain’s automatic tendencies. Understand that your brain wants to push you towards the high caloric density foods, so try to surround yourself with the healthy high calorie options. Start by stocking your pantry with mini bags of almonds or dried fruit instead of chocolate bars and chips. Don’t be afraid of calorie counting diets, but keep in mind that if you choose to estimate the number of calories, that number is likely wrong. So, take an extra minute to Google the nutrition facts, your future body will thank you.

Acknowledgements:
Pablo Gonzalez-Gandolfi (Dad): grammatical errors, clarification on study explanation, simplifying
Mike Robinson (Professor): implications of research, editing over simplifications
Jonah Toussaint (Classmate): Tweaking phrases

References:
1 Food Network Kitchen. (n.d.). Almost-Famous Molten Chocolate Cake : Food Network Kitchen : Food Network. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/food-network-kitchens/almost-famous-molten-chocolate-cake-recipe.html.

2 Flegal KM, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Ogden CL. Prevalence of obesity and trends in the distribution of body mass index among US adults, 1999–2010. Journal of the American Medical Association. 2012; 307(5):491–97.

3 Lettuce. (2016). Retrieved April 22, 2016, from http://www.vegkitchen.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/Romaine-lettuce.jpg.

4 Tang, D. W., Fellows, L. K., & Dagher, A. (2014). Behavioral and Neural Valuation of Foods Is Driven by Implicit Knowledge of Caloric Content. Psychological Science, 25(12), 2168-2176. Retrieved March 3, 2016.

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