Dieting tip for the day: Check the calorie count before you indulge. New research demonstrates that doing so impacts the brain’s response to the food.

A Useful Dieting Tip

Trying to keep fast food cravings in check? Hold the fries! As I like to tell me clients, all food decisions start in the brain. We know that certain parts of the brain light up in response to seeing different foods.

For some people, seeing the calorie count with the food choices, which is now posted in many fast-food and fast casual restaurants, makes them rethink their choices. Other studies show that posting an exercise burn equivalent is even more effective.

Dieting Tip about Calorie Counts

New research takes calorie count posting a step further and shows that seeing the calorie count changes the way your brain responds to the food.

Calorie Count Study Summary

According to a Dartmouth-led study published in PLOS ONE, seeing pictures of food with calorie information not only makes food less appetizing but it also appears to change the way your brain responds to the food.

When food images appeared with the calorie content, the brain showed decreased activation of the reward system and increased activation in the control system. In other words, foods that you might otherwise be inclined to eat became less desirable once the calorie content was displayed.

The study is the first of its kind to examine how your brain makes food choices when calorie information is presented. The results are timely given that earlier this year, certain food chain establishments had to comply with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s menu labeling law requiring the disclosure of calorie information on menus and menu boards.

How Study Was Conducted

Here’s how this study was conducted:

  • 42 undergraduate students, ages 18 to 22, viewed 180 food images without calorie information followed by images with calorie information.
  • They were asked to rate their desire to eat the food while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI).
  • The images were obtained from either the food pics database or popular, fast food restaurant websites that post calorie information.
  • The 22 dieters and 20 non-dieters viewed the same set of images, including foods such as a cheeseburger, a side of French fries or a slice of cherry cheesecake.
  • On a scale from 1 to 4 (1 = not at all, 4 = very much), they indicated how likely they would be to eat the food in the dining hall.
  • While dieters and non-dieters alike rated calorie-labeled foods as less appetizing, this effect was strongest among dieters.
  • Further, the researchers analyzed responses in two brain regions that motivate eating behavior: the nucleus accumbens (NAcc) and the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC).
  • Although all participants showed a decrease in activation in these areas when calorie information was present, dieters showed more similar activation patterns in the left OFC for calorie-labeled and unlabeled foods.

Researchers Analysis of Study Results

This finding suggests that dieters may consider calorie information even when it isn’t explicitly present and builds on previous research suggesting that the presence of health cues can lead to healthier food decisions.

Lead study authors Andrea Courtney and Kristina Rapuano, graduate students in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth, summarized the findings:

  • Our findings suggest that calorie-labeling may alter responses in the brain’s reward system when considering food options.
  • Moreover, we believe that nutritional interventions are likely to be more successful if they take into account the motivation of the consumer, including whether or not they diet.
  • In order to motivate people to make healthier food choices, policy changes are needed that incorporate not only nutritional information, including calorie content, but also a public education component, which reinforces the long-term benefits of a healthy diet.

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