Think about health when faced with tough decisions

Planning in advance to eat healthfully is quite easy – but what happens when you are confronted with an immediate decision between healthy and unhealthy food – especially when you are hungry?

Here’s an example: you’re at a party where everyone is munching on chips, cheesy dips, and greasy finger foods. You see a platter of raw vegetables and fresh fruit, but you feel tempted by the junk food. Do you stick with the produce or indulge in the calorie-laden snacks?  What goes on in your brain while you’re making that decision?

Subconsciously, we assign a certain value to each food, asking ourselves, “How will each of these foods taste? How healthy is each one? What is more important to me right now, taste or healthfulness?”

Photo of vegetable platter


Photo of junk food

Decision-making is thought to be controlled by part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontalcortex (vmPFC), which also plays a role in regulating emotions and emotional reactions.  A 2009 study found that another region, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), may help the vmPFC to decide that healthfulness is more important when making food decisions.   In people who showed more self-control in their food choices, the vmPFC was activated by pictures of foods they had as healthy and foods they rated as tasty; however, in people with less self-control, the vmPFC was only activated by foods they rated as tasty, not the ones they rated as healthy. Also, those with more self-control had more activity in the dlPFC during food decisions.  These results suggest that the dlPFC may reduce the value that the vmPFC assigns to tempting unhealthy foods, helping us to exert self-control in our food decisions.1

So, can we choose to activate the dlPFC to have more self-control when making food decisions?  If so, how? 

That’s exactly the question that this research group’s newest study tried to answer. Subjects were asked to fast for at least three hours prior to the experiment. They were shown pictures of 180 different foods and asked to respond within three seconds “yes” or “no” to whether they’d want to eat the food.  Before they experiment, they were told that one of their choices would be randomly selected, and if they answered “yes” for that food, it would be served to them later. 

Before each group of 10 food photos, a message would be displayed on the screen saying either "consider the healthiness," "consider the tastiness," or "make decisions naturally." These messages were designed to shift the subjects’ attention toward either taste or health – if they were reminded to think about health, would it change their brain activity and cause them to make a healthier choice?

The answer was yes. After seeing the “consider the healthiness” message, subjects were less likely to choose unhealthy foods, and more likely to choose healthy-untasty foods.  They also said “no” to foods more often after seeing the “healthiness” message than after seeing the “naturally” message.  

What was going on in the brain? In response to pictures of healthy foods, the vmPFC showed more activity in the presence of the “healthiness” message compared to the other messages.  The dlPFC was more active in response to all of the food pictures in the presence of the “healthiness” message compared to the other messages.  This result suggests that the dlPFC was more able to help the vmPFC put more value on healthiness after the “healthiness” message.   The subjects made healthier choices when they were reminded to do so.2,3

The message here is that making the tough decisions between taste and health is easier than we think – if we can remind ourselves that health is the more important quality, we can alter the way the brain values the foods involved.  When faced with a decision between delicious healthy food and tempting unhealthy food, we can use reminders to shift our attention toward health:

    • Post sticky notes in your kitchen, or on your desk at work, saying “Choose the healthiest foods” or something similar.   

    • Make a sign that says “GOMBS* fight cancer in every bite.”

    • When you are looking at a menu in a restaurant, or making a food choice outside of your home, remind yourself “I choose to eat healthy foods,” or “I do not eat disease-causing foods.” Write these statements on a visible card you keep in your wallet or pocketbook.

    • As Dr. Fuhrman recommends, put a sign on your refrigerator that says “The salad is the main dish!” 

According to this research, reminders like these do work.  We can train ourselves (and our dlPFCs) to use healthfulness as the most important quality by which we value foods.

*GOMBS  = Greens, Onions, Mushrooms, Beans, Berries, Seeds

 

References:

1. Hare TA, Camerer CF, Rangel A: Self-control in decision-making involves modulation of the vmPFC valuation system. Science 2009;324:646-648.

2. Think healthy, eat healthy: Caltech scientists show link between attention and self-control. EurekAlert! http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2011-07/ciot-the072611.php. Accessed August 15, 2011.

3. Hare TA, Malmaud J, Rangel A: Focusing Attention on the Health Aspects of Foods Changes Value Signals in vmPFC and Improves Dietary Choice. J Neurosci 2011;31:11077-11087.


 

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Comments (11) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
Stephanie - August 18, 2011 2:27 PM

When I'm having trouble (something that is increasingly rarer), I write "ETL" on my hand in sharpie. It usually helps; I see it all the time, and it's on the hand I usually reach for food with, so I can't grab something unhealthy without feeling extremely guilty.

Nora Manwiller - August 18, 2011 2:34 PM

This is one reason I appreciate the emails from dr.fuhrman, and disease proof. I need to be reminded every day!

Margie Sifuentes - August 18, 2011 2:57 PM

Thank you for the article and information about how we make our choices. I have been trying to pinpoint another factor in making the healthier choices that seems to be involved in my move toward better health. There is something occuring that is like a subtle evolution rather than my earlier attempts to "choose healthy". It seems to me my body is working with me and I am moving further away from "conscious choices" but there is a force operating in me that guides me to better food decisions. It is gentler than my past attempts to "make conscious choices" where most of the decision-making was trying to quell an urge to "go for the unhealthy and satisfy that urge". I like what is happening to me as it involves less of a conscious willing but perhaps a body force that makes it easier to not make the unhealthy choice. It seems to me my body is working with me on this. I also (at last) have weakened body impulses and satisfaction from the unhealthy foods. It is not complete but it is a movement toward health. Thanks for the opportunity to try to put in to words something I have been experiencing. Thanks to Dr. Fuhrman I have advanced to a "Nutritarian" and am moving along the scale toward improvement of choices.

Jessica Caneal - August 18, 2011 3:26 PM

I LOVE this post! I hope to see more on the psychology of our food choices on this blog. After all, this kind of information can actually be translated into useful advice for those of us who need some help with self-control around food, or those of us battling food addictions. Many times, it is not enough to simply know the nutritional status of various food choices. We need to change the way we think about and relate to food in order to create lasting, healthful change.

Linda - August 19, 2011 9:01 AM

Great post, Dr. Ferreri! This is exactly how I changed my food world upside down, and regained my health.

With every food choice/situation, I would ask myself, "Does this feed LIFE and health, or disease and death?" I do NOT eat foods which feed disease in my life; I will NOT feed my mortal enemy! Thus, even an old favorite was relatively easily relegated to 'non-food' status in my mind, because of my mental motivation/viewpoint. Knowledge is key, but how you use the knowledge empowers it.

Great article.

CACC - August 19, 2011 10:37 PM

Thank you for this post; I find it really helpful to understand how the brain works in relation to food decisions. Would love to see more on this topic in the future.

Nevada Smith - August 20, 2011 8:40 AM

Self control is one of the fruitages of the spirit mentioned in the Bible at Galatians 5:22,23.

While the information is good for all, I know alot of obese Christians who may benefit from considering this.

After all the good book also says, "The person faithful in what is least is faithful also in much, and the person unrighteous in what is least is unrighteous also in much."

Andrea - August 22, 2011 6:34 PM

I love the idea of reminding yourself that these choices impact your health and likelihood of getting diseases. I always try to remember how much better I will feel and how much more energy I will have if I make the healthy choice.

StephenMarkTurner - August 24, 2011 11:33 AM

Deana, does the 'Onions' in GOMBS essentially mean other alliums as well (such as garlic)?

Thanks,
Steve

Deana Ferreri, Ph.D. - August 24, 2011 12:24 PM

Yes, the entire onion (Allium) family - onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, shallots, etc.

eat heal thy - August 25, 2011 1:21 PM

Very helpful in understanding how your decisions are made. With so many choices, you really need to make a commitment to yourself and stick to it. Selecting the best life sustaining foods is generally easy once you've made up your mind.

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