A Picture is Worth a Thousand Calories

According to a new study, pictures of food may be to blame for some of our guiltiest cravings. As obvious as this may already seem (I, myself, can think of more than enough examples in which this has been the absolute case), researchers hope that this more in-depth analysis can help squelch some bad decisions before they are made.

“Studies have shown that advertisements featuring food make us think of eating, but our research looked at how the brain responds to food cues and how that increases hunger and desire for certain foods,” explained lead researcher Kathleen Page, assistant professor of clinical medicine at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine.

In order to complete this, the team at USC examined and measured the brain responses of 13 obese, Hispanic females from ages 15 to 25, while they looked at a series of low-calorie and high-calorie foods. (This particular group was sought because studies have pointed to women as being more inclined to act on food cues; and women in the Hispanic community tend to have a higher incidence rate of Type II diabetes and obesity.) To gauge brain activity, the women underwent two fMRI scans and asked to rank their cravings for each pictured food on a scale of 1 to 10.

About halfway through the their picture show, the women were asked to drink 50 grams of a glucose-saturated liquid—equivalent to approximately one can of sugary soda-pop. During another similar break, the women were asked to drink 50 grams of fructose. Both fructose and glucose can be found in a variety of everyday substances including standard sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. As the fMRIs measured blood flow in the brain, Page and her team were able to get a better understanding of how each picture (coupled with the glucose and/or fructose drink) affected areas in the brain most closely linked to reward and motivation.

The results found that when the women were looking at images of high-calorie foods, in addition to an increased desire for these foods, brain activity elevated and activity in the reward and motivation centers were particularly elevated. Add the sugary drinks to the mix and the activity increased even more. It was, however, noted that the fructose liquid had an even greater impact.

“We hypothesized that the reward areas in the women’s brains would be activated when they were looking at high-calorie foods, and that did happen,” Page explained of the results. “What we didn’t expect was that consuming the glucose and fructose would increase their hunger and desire for savory foods.”

While it may not seem a ‘gift’ now, this attraction to foods may have served a greater purpose in the past. In times when food was less available, and the next meal was oftentimes not a guarantee, craving foods with a high fat content was a great way our bodies could prepare in uncertain times. “Our bodies are made to eat food and store energy, and in prehistoric days, it behooved us to eat a lot of high-calorie foods because we didn’t know when the next meal was coming,” surmised Page.

But as great as that may seem, much of American culture today is centered on food—food that is, generally speaking, far from being great for us. Junk-food advertising has become the norm; and even without a sugary drink in hand, this consistent stream of images can lead to some bad choices—dietarily speaking.

So maybe, if it is ever possible tune out to junk food advertising. Your waist line may thank you for it.


 Photo Credit: t3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcQu9r2JlBV30fwNu5SOBd-OQYYn1EUxoiz35bpWnBZWDE0rzkz7iw

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