Studying our brains offers insight into our power of self-control when it comes to food, writes Olivier Oullier
The neuroscientist’s guide to improving your diet
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are all consumers. We consume everything, from entertainment to healthcare and politics. And of course, we consume food – a lot of food, actually.
In the US, it is estimated each person consumes a tonne of food per year. Why we can’t resist food, including many products that are terrible for our health, is an issue scientists and policymakers have grappled with for decades.
Of course, what influences and drives our food consumption patterns and the obesity epidemic is so multi-faceted that no simple answer emerges.
Countless behavioural studies have been conducted over the past 50 years to try to better understand the mechanisms underlying our food consumption and lack of self-control and what it implies about other aspects of our lives.
Take the famous series of studies often referred to as the "marshmallow experiments". In the late 1960s, children were presented with food but were told that if they could refrain from eating it for a certain period of time, they would get a reward superior to that which was in front of them.
In the late 1980s, follow-up experiments revealed statistically significant correlations between the abilities of those children to delay gratification and their performance in academic tests and stress levels as adolescents.
Last week these seminal findings were challenged. More than 50 years later, the riddle is still unsolved.
Two neuroscientists I was lucky enough to work with are using behavioural science and neurotechnologies to better understand how pleasure and health goals compete in our brains when deciding between fruit and a chocolate bar. Their work offers novel insights into our ability to exert self-control and resist food temptation.
An interesting article published last week in the Journal of Neuroscience by Hilke Plassmann, Insead’s professor of decision neuroscience, together with a group of international scientists, looked at the influence of differences in brain anatomy in people’s ability to regulate their diet.
Their findings reveal that neuro-anatomical differences in certain areas of the brain inform a person's self-control when it comes to food intake. Men and women with more grey matter volume in specific areas were found to exercise better dietary self-control.
Professor Plassmann says investigations including looking at the brain's neuroplasticity, or ability to adapt, can be instructive, adding: “Further research could investigate whether brain-based training could potentially help people with self-control issues improve their eating habits".
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Public health prevention strategies can benefit not only from insights into brain anatomy but also from how it functions when people try to regulate their food intake. Olivia Petit, a consumer neuroscientist and assistant professor of marketing at Kedge Business School, published a study that I co-authored exploring how attention paid to the healthiness or tastiness of fruits and vegetables is managed at brain level and how it explains why some people cannot make healthy food choices.
Her findings indicate that, contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily a lack of self-control that explains why people with a high body mass index (BMI) make unhealthy food choices.
Her results suggest that the excessive attention given to their health benefits might explain the lack of attractiveness of fruits and vegetables. Emphasising pleasure instead might help people with high BMI to self-regulate.
Professor Petit’s findings are currently being used by health authorities to design more efficient public campaigns focusing on the tastiness of healthy food.
The French government pioneered the use of behavioural neuroscience in tackling obesity in 2010, as part of a programme I led at the Centre for Strategic Analysis. Since then, a significant number of public health authorities globally have embraced neuroscience to better inform their prevention campaigns and support programmes for people in need of help to regulate their diets.
But we are far from understanding how to best resist temptation.
Here is one mental "hack" you can use that comes from a study conducted by scientists at Carnegie Mellon University.
The next time you see a bowl of sweets or snacks and feel the urge to eat them, take a moment before you do so to imagine eating them first.
The chances are you will eat a lot less than doing so without the mental simulation. It's just a trick but it demonstrates the role the brain can play in food intake.
Professor Olivier Oullier is the president of Emotiv, a neuroscientist and a DJ. He served as global head of strategy in health and healthcare and is a member of the executive committee of the World Economic Forum