Can thinking about food help your diet?

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Just try not to think about food right now. It’s pretty much impossible to consciously keep yourself from thinking about something, especially when you’re likely to see it all the time. Trying to somehow force food from your mind, then, is an exercise in futility. New research suggests that the best way to eat a healthier diet may not mean you have to shut out thoughts of food; instead, understanding how your mind works when you think about which food to eat can be the key.

Thoughts on food

Scientists working at the California Institute of Technology have published results of a very interesting series of experiments in the journal, Psychological Science concerning how our brains mull over food choices. According to lead author and CalTech graduate student Nicolette Sullivan, “In typical food choices, individuals need to consider attributes like health and taste in their decisions. What we wanted to find out was at what point the taste of the foods starts to become integrated into the choice process, and at what point health is integrated.”


The first step in uncovering how our brains work when it comes to diet was to examine how fast we make decisions on food. This involved taking 28 hungry CalTech students and asking them to look at images on a computer and rate them -2 to 2 based on taste, nutritional value and how much they wanted to eat the food following the test. Once completed, the participants then looked at 280 pairs of images, chosen at random, of the same foods and used the computer mouse to choose one of the foods. Scientists were able to track the movement of the mouse cursor on screen to a matter of milliseconds in order to determine precisely when and for how long taste was a factor in a decision as well as when, if at all, health considerations began to be involved.

When it’s your opinion, taste isn’t exactly an opinion

This process is based on the assumption that taste is a more objective consideration than health. Calling taste objective may sound completely contradictory, but in this instance it is absolutely correct. We know what foods we like, and we know how they taste. Our internal idea of “taste” is set. When we see something we like, our knee-jerk reaction is to want to eat it. Also, when we see something we don’t like, we don’t want to eat it. Healthiness, on the other hand, is a more abstract concept. Certainly one we more often associate with benefits that are not always immediate. This means we have to think about eating healthy more than we think about eating what we like. And the results of the study suggest this is absolutely true.


Depending on how often health affected their considerations, i.e., how much self-control a participant had when choosing food, the researchers divided the participants into 2 groups: one of high self-control and one of low. In the low self-control group, subjects showed health consideration an average of 323 milliseconds more slowly than the high self-control group. This led researchers to conclude that the quicker a health consideration become a part of the thought process, the more likely a person is to choose a healthier option over a tasty, but possibly unhealthy, one.

What should you do?

This is an interesting study, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we need to stop everything and think about what is healthy. It does mean, though, that considering the nutritional value of foods more can actually help you make the right choices in your current diet. At this point, you’re probably well aware of which foods are healthy and which are not. What you need to do is take time to really consider the food you’re about to eat. The more often you think about how healthy a food is, the more likely it is that you will think about health more quickly in the future.

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