Our brain is one of our most fascinating organs. Not only does it serve as the centre of our nervous system but it is also our command centre when it comes to controlling the different organs in the body. As with most of our daily activities, there are certain areas in the brain that is believed to influence our eating habits.
In a recent study by the Nutritional Journal, researchers aimed to learn more about how our brain influences our choices when it comes to food. The study was done with 30 people between the ages of 14 and 22. They were asked a series of questions about their diet and also took an IQ test to factor out intelligence as the main difference in food choices. They were shown pictures of various foods, and were required to take action, by pressing a button as fast as possible when presented with a high-calorie food in one test and a low-calorie food in another.
The results? Participants to the study pressed the button more times than they were asked to when it came to high calorie foods, suggesting that they favoured these foods and had a conditioned response to them. Also interesting to note was that the greater the body mass index (BMI) of the participants were, the more likely they were to respond to high calorie foods. The striatum, the area in the brain that controls habits, were also more active in these individuals.
Researchers found that while our brain systems might alter our food choices, it isn’t yet clear if they we are genetically wired this to be way, or if these decisions are the result of years of bad habit and the overconsumption of food. Either way, we are now armed with more information about how we make our food choices.
“Cognitive control and value-based decision-making tasks appear to depend on different brain regions within the prefrontal cortex,” says Jan Glascher, visiting associate at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.
The Areas of the Brain:
The brain is mainly divided in three main sections: the cerebrum (big brain), the cerebellum (small brain) and the brain stem. There are four areas in the brain called lobes, which includes the frontal lobe, occipital lobe, parietal lobe and temporal lobe. Each area controls different specified functions. Neural tissue is also present which enable us to experience senses like taste, smell, sight, hearing and balance.
Although food is digested and used as fuel for the body, the way in which we choose our food is quite complex. We choose food because of various reasons; it might be because we are hungry, due to experiencing a specific emotion, how we physically feel, and of course as a result of habits. The frontal lobe of the brain is where emotions, behaviour, sense of smell and physical reactions are controlled.
The other aspect to keep in mind is that our nervous system plays a role in decision-making. The striatum forms part in of the forebrain, one of three primary parts of the brain that develops as early as the central nervous system develops. This controls eating and sleeping, as well as any display of emotions. The striatum receives messages from the cerebral cortex – the outer layer of neural tissue of the big brain – and interprets these messages. If your striatum is over-active, your might have a problem when it comes to controlling food.
Another area in the brain that might affect the way you think about food or how you make food choices is the decision making and impulse control systems. These neurological systems allow us to make smarter choices. In the event that these systems are underactive, the choices we make will likely be unwise. This in turn will contribute to a poor diet, and failing with a long-term goal such as weight loss.
We are only able to understand a small part of the complexity of the human body. Researchers are making new discoveries every day, leaving us in awe of how the systems in our body work and intertwine with each other. All the systems in our body have to be in balance in order for us to stay healthy. So, comfort food or healthy food? The decision remains one that will ultimately come from your brain.
- Nutritional Journal, Poor Ability to Resist Tempting Calorie Rich Food is Linked to Altered Balance between Neural Systems Involved in Urge and Self-Control.
- TIME, Making Choices: How Your Brain Decides
Josh Douglas is a content writer for HFE an awarding-winning provider of personal trainer courses and fitness qualifications. They also specialise in producing in-depth articles and interviews with leading fitness professionals.