Struggling to lose weight? Blame Your Brain!

Your Brain May Be Undermining Your New Year’s Resolution


Every day we make decisions about what to eat. How hungry am I? How much money am I willing to spend? What am I in the mood for? These are just some of the many questions we ask ourselves before each meal. For many, determining the health value of a given food plays a large role in whether or not it is something we want to eat, especially considering rising obesity rates. A shorthand for determining how healthy a food is, is to look at its caloric content. And while the amount of calories in a particular food item does not represent everything that may be healthful or not about that food, it allows a person to gauge if they are eating more or less calories than they should be, based upon their daily recommendations. A new study conducted at McGill University begins to examine why people choose what they eat by examining specific brain regions associated with the value of rewards.

Knowing that people gravitate towards fats, sugars and other rewarding foods, the researchers set out to try and determine whether people consciously seek out these high-calorie foods. To answer this question, they asked 29 healthy participants to estimate the caloric content of 50 different foods. They then asked the participants how much they were willing to pay for each food item while their brains were being scanned. What they found is that the amount of money participants were willing to pay for each item correlated with the caloric content of that food. This is especially interesting because the caloric content of the food did not correlate with the participants own estimate of the caloric content. This means that people consistently were willing to pay more for high-calorie foods, even though they were unable to consistently identify which of these foods were high-calorie in the first place. So how did they know which foods would have more calories? It seems as if their brains did–at least a part of the brain that is related to determining how much a person wants something (namely, the ventromedial prefrontal cortex). The brain scans of the participants revealed that when they saw pictures of high calorie foods, the areas of the brain that are related to determining an objects value were especially active. Because the willingness to pay was not correlated with participants estimates, the activity in these value-determining regions did not seem to have any connection with brain areas associated with estimating.

This finding is especially consequential as it suggests that people unconsciously desire and are motivated to buy and consume high-calorie foods. “Your ventromedial prefrontal cortex may be your biggest enemy in trying to meet your weight-loss goals”* quips Dr. Deborah Tang, the lead author of the study. So next time you find yourself willing to pay $5.00 for a cronut, remember that this may be your brain telling you just how many calories you’re about to consume… (1,300)! (Hilmantel, 2014).


-Sadie Renjilian, friend

-Zoe Kurland, classmate and friend

-Susannah Clark


Hamblin, J. (2013, August 13). Cronut Burger: Canada’s Brazen Move in Great Pastry Wars of 2013. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from

Hilmantel, R. (2014, October 6). The Number of Calories in a Cronut. Retrieved March 03, 2016,      from

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *