Given a choice between juicy cheesy burgers and a bowl of colorful salad (with enriched salad dressings and even edible flowers!), what would you prefer to eat? If your answer is ‘burger’ don’t worry as you are not committing a grave sin by enjoying it and if your answer is ‘salad’, again there is nothing to be proud of, but it is indeed a good choice as you wish to go healthy even when offered a choice. People call it will power, health consciousness or the ruling of mind over body when individuals choose to eat healthy food despite a varied spread of dishes available. If we come across an overweight person indulging in a dessert treat while having our dinner at a restaurant, we assume the person to lack self-control or determination to lose weight and stay healthy. Why does it never cross our mind that this dessert could be a cheat meal that has happened after months or after losing a few kilograms? Such cheat meals are even linked with character flaws sometimes. The best thing we are all good at doing is to judge people mindlessly based on what we see at that point of time!
For weight-conscious individuals (especially women), food choices involve a long-standing dilemma between relishing and enjoying the food consumed versus the long-term goal of being slim and healthy. Making healthy food choices isn’t always easy. A study published in the Journal of Neuroscience reveals that our food choices might not always indicate a character flaw and our ability to implement self-control is linked with our neuroscience. This study was a highly reputed one performed by a team of researchers who are a part of INSEAD and INSERM in France.
The research comprised of four tests that involved 123 people (78 women and 45 men). During the first three tests, participants were placed inside an fMRI scanner, shown photos of food items and asked whether they wanted to consume it with response options ranging from ‘strong yes’ to ‘strong no.’ Also, these participants were asked to take decisions based on health, tastiness or their own natural inclination. There was a vast array of food items ranging from Brussels sprouts to chocolate chip cookies. The last test did not impart any decision-making rules and the participants were asked to ‘indulge’ in the food, stay away from what they crave or choose the ones they would normally eat. These individuals were also asked to quote a price they would pay for a food item to obtain permission to eat it at the end of the experiment, with prices ranging from $0 to $2.50.
To exactly know what kind of foods that participants would love to eat, these individuals fasted for four hours before they began. The research group also promised the participants that they would be allowed to eat any food randomly from the list the participants had rated. By chance, if the random item was one that the participant had expressed no desire to eat, he/she would not be offered the food. At the end of the experiment, all these promised were fulfilled and the participants paid money for the foods they wished to eat.
The research team, on analyzing the test subjects’ brain anatomy along with their food choices found that the amount of self-control exhibited (this includes the participant’s ability to focus on health and let go of taste when asked to do so) depended on the grey matter volume (GMV) in two brain regions. Individuals with higher GMV in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) displayed increased self-control.
Neuroscientists still debate as to which of the two regions of is responsible for self-control. The vmPFC is normally said to be involved in valuation and decision-making while the dlPFC is linked to cognition, memory and self-regulation of emotions only when impulses are successfully resisted. How the two regions play a crucial role to impose self-control was not dealt by the research team and remains as a matter for further investigation. But according to researchers, the vmPFC is responsible for unifying traits such as healthiness and tastiness into a holistic value signal and the dlPFC takes care of the self-control portion.
The research might arise a question in each of our minds whether the extent of self-control is already established in our brains biologically. Absolutely not! We are all born with different IQ levels and sharpen our brains as we grow depending on our upbringing, exposure to outside world and the education we are provided. Likewise, the structure of brain regions can change based on many other factors which can be called as ‘neuroplasticity.’ In simple terms, GMV can be compared to a muscle that can be developed with exercise.
How GMV channelizes our mind and brings about self-control can be effectively used to look at various other methods for treating eating disorders such as anorexia and binge eating. Diagnosing these disorders to the dot is extremely challenging and psychiatrists would love to have objective biomarkers to help them assessing a patient. At the same time, neuroanatomy could also help to single out overweight/obese people whose lack of self-control have put them at an increased risk of becoming obese later in life. GMV can help in the early diagnosis of obesity which is the need of the hour. Once diagnosed, it becomes essential to treat obesity in the natural way by following a healthy diet coupled with exercises based on the recommendations of nutritionists/dietitians at www.firsteatright.com.
The world is trying to find a cure for obesity and policymakers are looking forward to creating an environment that encourage people to make more healthful food choices. But, they should be conscious that neuroplasticity and GMV differ at the base level between individuals. Some people might respond to health better than taste and likewise. Hence, there cannot be one set of health rules laid down for an entire population and policymakers should look out for better alternatives.
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Dietitian & Nutritionist Dr. Nafeesa Imteyaz.