Your Brain on Food Videos

watching food videos

Have you seen a food video yet today? I’m betting you have. We’re spending more time in front of screens than ever. We have a huge buffet of digital media to sample from, but it seems that we’re gobbling up #foodporn like never before. Food Network, ‘Tasty’ videos and their lookalikes, and pictures of your friends’ dinners are more popular than ever. It makes you wonder… is #foodporn helping us or hurting us?

Why I’m Writing This

Before sitting down to write this post, I’ll admit, I was scrolling through Facebook and I stumbled across one of those eye-catching, mouth-watering 30-second food videos. Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years, you’ve seen them too. They’re unavoidable. They’re kind of like cat videos. If you’re on Facebook for more than 15 seconds, you’re bound to find one.

This particular food video featured a circus animal cookie cheesecake. I repeat. CIRCUS ANIMAL COOKIES. IN A CHEESECAKE. I don’t know about you, but I’m a sucker for those Pepto Bismol-colored things. Maybe they bring back memories of my childhood… not sure what it is. Needless to say, I was hooked and I watched the entire thing.

I wasn’t hungry before watching that video. In fact, I had just eaten a full meal. After the video? I had to stop myself from running to the store for a bag of those cookies. Luckily, I was able to talk myself off the ledge and listen to my body instead of my impulsive brain. I didn’t actually want those cookies–in retrospect, the whole dessert sounded way too sweet–I was just easily swayed by an external cue to eat.

I thought to myself, “I wonder how many times I’ve gotten a craving for something just because I saw an appetizing food video or photo online? Could this be a problem for other people too? Why does this happen?”

Why Do We Choose Certain Foods?

woman drinking smoothie

Our appetites and food choices are highly complex. There’s a whole area of study called ‘ingestive behavior’ (aka why we eat the things that we eat)! We tend to choose foods based on the following factors:

  • Hunger
  • Palatability (aka appearance, taste, smell, and texture)
  • Cost and accessibility
  • Skills and time
  • Knowledge and beliefs about food
  • Culture, class, and social influences
  • Psychological factors (mood and stress level)

Can you guess which factor usually overrides the others?

Hunger is the clear winner, but if you guessed palatability or psychological factors, you’re not too far off. We innately want food that makes us feel good! Food is supposed to be pleasurable and rewarding. Our body’s natural drive to eat is meant to keep us from starving. (i.e. It’s a good thing that we get excited about food.)

But – Why Do We Eat When We’re Not Hungry?

hand holding ice cream cone

I know I’ve done it. We all probably have. Eating is a pleasurable experience, so it makes sense that we often eat for a thrill versus just to fuel our bodies. There’s even a technical term for it; hedonic hunger- the desire to eat highly palatable foods when not physiologically hungry. It’s a thing.

Your predisposition to hedonic hunger can be assessed using a nifty little tool called the Power of Food Scale. This questionnaire measures how preoccupied a person is with food. Higher scores on this scale have been associated with behaviors like overeating and increased sensitivity to food cues.

Want to know one thing that increases food’s power over you? Restriction! When we continually restrict a food that we desire, it actually increases the hedonic value (aka reward value) of the food. So yes, sometimes we should be saying “no” to a food, but not all of the time. It may seem counterintuitive, but giving yourself full permission to have your favorite foods once and awhile can actually put you in control. (Read that sentence to yourself again.)

Eating with Our Eyes

I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “You eat with your eyes first.” Well, they’re right. In fact, some research suggests that color vision was an evolutionary advantage that helped early humans identify nutrient-dense foods when foraging. (1, 2, 3) Our brains have evolved to help us seek out foods that make our brain’s pleasure and reward centers light up. That may have been a helpful biological drive when food was scarce (think early humans that had to hunt their food down) but the world has changed. Now –at least in the developed world–there is no shortage of nutrient-dense, highly-palatable foods available to us, and we’re looking at them all day.

I can pretty much guarantee you’re reading this post from an electronic device. (Unless you happened to print it out – extra credit for you.) The average American spends about 10 hours in front of screens each day. (4, 5)  Cooking shows, Instagram #foodporn, and Tasty-style cooking videos are more popular than ever.

Even when we’re not hungry, seeing visually appealing food can give us the urge to eat. It makes me wonder if our constant exposure to this type of content translates to actually eating more.

Our Brains on #foodporn

taking photo of food with smartphone

When we look at a food video or photo, we “indulge vicariously,” which means that part of us is anticipating eating that food. The reward centers of our brain light up, and we can even salivate. (6) Then, that excitement usually triggers areas in the brain responsible for restraint, which keeps us from actually eating. But exercising this restraint can be more challenging for those who are more susceptible to food cues and overeating – such as individuals who suffer from certain eating disorders as well as those with a higher BMI. (7, 8, 9)

Remember how restriction affects the reward value of food? I have to wonder whether the constant cycle of exposure and restraint involved in viewing food images affects our relationship with food.

Seeing a food video or photo won’t always cause us to overeat, but it certainly can if the circumstances are right. More food stimuli in front of our eyeballs lead to more brain excitement, and when combined with lower levels of restraint (as seen when we exhibit higher levels of physiological or hedonic hunger) and easily accessible food, it makes sense that we would eat.

How to Cope With Food Video Temptations

  • Improve your digital stimuli by doing a “social media cleanse.” (This is the ONLY “cleanse” I will ever recommend to you!) Unfollow accounts that you feel are not a positive or healthy influence on you, then follow a few healthy accounts for food videos and inspiration. Nutritious food can be enticing if you give it a chance.
  • Check in with your body’s cues. Take the time to listen to yourself before deciding to eat something. Are you truly hungry, or is something else going on that needs to be addressed? Remember to HALT – ask “Am I hungry, angry, lonely, or tired?” Maybe you’re bored or stressed! Address those needs. If you’re hungry, what food will nourish your body? If you’re emotional, what does your soul truly need?
  • Is what you’re feeling emotional or physical hunger? Indicators your hunger is related to your emotional state would include feelings that occur suddenly “above the neck” (i.e. feeling like you have a “taste” for something). Indicators of physical hunger can include a feeling of emptiness that comes on gradually, fatigue, or a growling stomach. (FYI: It’s okay to eat in response to either type of hunger – just be aware!)
  • Becoming more in-tune with your body helps you to trust yourself around food – all kinds of food. When you know why you find yourself wanting ice cream, even though you’re not hungry, it puts you in the driver’s seat to say yes or say no. The food doesn’t have any special power over you and your decisions. Some call this willpower, others call it being intuitive, but I call it ‘food freedom.’ When you are eating a balanced diet, listening to your body, and truly practicing moderation, no foods are off-limits.

References:

  1. Bompas, A., Kendall, G., & Sumner, P. (2013). Spotting fruit versus picking fruit as the selective advantage of human colour vision. I-Perception, 4(2), 84–94. http://doi.org/10.1068/i0564 
  2. Regan, B. C., Julliot, C., Simmen, B., Viénot, F., Charles-Dominique, P., & Mollon, J. D. (2001). Fruits, foliage and the evolution of primate colour vision. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, 356(1407), 229–283. http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2000.0773 
  3. Sumner, P., & Mollon, J. D. (2000). Catarrhine photopigments are optimized for detecting targets against a foliage background. Journal of Experimental Biology, 203(13), 1963-1986. 
  4. Common Sense Media Measures Plugged in Parents
  5. CNN. (2016). Americans Devote More Than 10 Hours to Screen Time and Growing. 
  6. Spence, C., Okajima, K., Cheok, A. D., Petit, O., & Michel, C. (2016). Eating with our eyes: From visual hunger to digital satiation. Brain and cognition, 110, 53-63. 
  7. Ouwehand, C., & Papies, E. K. (2010). Eat it or beat it. The differential effects of food temptations on overweight and normal-weight restrained eaters. Appetite, 55(1), 56-60.
  8. Schienle, A., Schäfer, A., Hermann, A., & Vaitl, D. (2009). Binge-eating disorder: reward sensitivity and brain activation to images of food. Biological psychiatry, 65(8), 654-661. 
  9. Stoeckel, L. E., Weller, R. E., Cook III, E. W., Twieg, D. B., Knowlton, R. C., & Cox, J. E. (2008). Widespread reward-system activation in obese women in response to pictures of high-calorie foods. Neuroimage, 41(2), 636-647. 

Photo 1 by ian dooley on Unsplash

Photo 2 by Dan Gold on Unsplash

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