The Subconscious Controls Your Food Choices

By Vaan Taepaisitphongse | February 27, 2016   8:32am ET

Assumption – obese individuals make bad food choices. But how do you choose what you eat? Chocolate for its sweet sugary taste? Green salad for its nutritional value? Or a burger for fuel?


Imagine if I showed you images of foods, asked how much you like them and told you to approximate its caloric contents. Then, to determine your willingness to pay for each food item, I asked you to place bids on them. You would pay more for a delicious square of chocolate than a side of green salad because it tastes better right? Well, I have scientific evidence supporting the contrary.

According to a study conducted at McGill University1, if the salad is calorically denser than the chocolate, our brains will tell us to choose the salad. Counter-intuitively, findings indicate that we are poor judges of caloric content and our willingness to pay is predicted by the actual caloric density of the foods rather than our estimates of it! What is more shocking is how much we like the food items does not influence the way we place bids on them. Indicating that caloric density, not pleasure, determines how we choose foods.

According to Dr. Deborah Tang of McGill University, even though we inaccurately guess the amount of calories, our willingness to pay and the brain region that encodes the value of foods strongly correlates with the food’s actual caloric density. Hence Tang suggests, “the reward value of a food is dependent on its caloric content, acquired through experience,” and “perceived calories have no impact on food valuation*.” In other words, how we value food is determined by implicit unconscious mechanisms rather than our explicit conscious judgments.

So how do these findings relate to obesity?

The foods made most readily available to us are processed junk foods; and most of us are not aware of the caloric contents of processed foods relative to the daily amount of calories we need.

The American Heart Association (AHA)2 claims that the recommended amount of sugar per day is 6 teaspoons for women and 9 teaspoons for men. But drinking only one can of coke, containing 9 1/3 teaspoons of sugar3, will exceed our daily-recommended amount. Hence, it is in the fast food companies’ best interests to obscure nutritional information to maximize their sales.

Tang confessed that claiming “perceived calories have no impact on food valuation” is an oversimplification. Studies suggest that if made aware of caloric contents we consumed in proportion to that of our daily needs, we would make healthy food choices. Hence, if we are not making healthy choices, it is because the presentation of nutritional information is unclear. Thus policies addressing the presentation of nutritional information need to be implemented.

Captain Crunch, what is 12 grams of sugar in a serving of your cereal relative to the recommended daily intake? Make it obvious! I don’t want to waste time looking for it.

Fast Food Industry – Give us the right kind of information. Stop expanding our waistlines!



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3,970 thoughts on “The Subconscious Controls Your Food Choices

  1. Maybe I’m overweight because growing up, when I did something good my mom always rewarded me with junk food and sweets. So now, whenever I’m feeling down or sad I just binge on unhealthy foods. Are obesity rates increasing because of the social constructions around how we perceive unhealthy foods as rewards?

  2. WHY is there a disconnect between our implicit and explicit knowledge of food? If our brains are smart enough to implicitly value foods based on its caloric contents, why can’t it make us explicit know what we are eating?

  3. Why are they even using healthy normal weight people as their participants? They are not the ones suffering from obesity! Use overweight and obese people for your sample population! We are the ones having trouble with food intake!

  4. I am battling with bulimia and my therapist said I have a distorted relationship to food compared to normal people. I feel that the assumptions the researchers made, that individuals make food choices based on the “rewarding effects of the contained nutrients,” is so not true. I know that my food choices are influenced by my mood or what I am going through at the time. Like, when I’m really stressed out, I would binge on junk food and sweets. And I actually don’t enjoy it, I just feel compelled to stuff my face with unhealthy food. My eating patterns and food choices are also very different if I was going though a binge episode, or am just being very restrictive with my food intake because I feel fat after binging.

    • I agree that we have different eating patterns from ‘healthy’ people. I suffer from obesity, and I know for a fact that I don’t choose my foods on their “nutritional value”. I just eat what I like. Like, I know Fruits and vegetables would have more “nutritional value”. But it just doesn’t taste as good as like nachos or a burger.

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