You Are What You Think You Eat…

By Jonathan Ross

A growing body of research is demonstrating that how we think about food—not just what we eat—may hold the key to lasting weight management. Learn how the brain perceives the differences between healthy and indulgent foods, as well as its response to artificial sweeteners, and how you can use this information to help your clients better understand their relationships with food.

Did you know that what we believe we are eating and what our brain thinks we are eating dramatically affect the body’s response to what we eat? Furthermore, emerging evidence suggests that certain foods may actually promote addictive responses in our brains. Unfortunately, countless experts still promote the overly simplistic approach of a “calorie is a calorie” and that the energy-balance equation (calories in vs. calories out) is the only consideration necessary for weight management. The more we learn about our intricately connected brains and bodies, however, the more outdated these approaches become.

Mind Over Milkshakes

While it’s true that we are what we eat from the perspective of what the cells of our bodies are constructed from, when it comes to how our body reacts to, processes and uses the foods we eat, a growing body of research is suggests that we are, in fact, what we think we eat.

For example, a research team from Yale University fed the exact same (360 calorie) milkshake labeled as either “indulgent” (620 calories) or “health conscious” (140 calories) to 46 study participants, who consumed each shake one week apart. To lend credibility to the “different” shakes used in the study, the researchers hired a graphic design team to produce realistic-looking labels to be placed on each of the two “different” shakes (Crum, 2011).

Researchers measured the subjects’ ghrelin response after each shake was consumed. Ghrelin is a hormone that rises to stimulate hunger when it is time for us to eat. (It’s opposite is leptin, which tells us we are full and to stop eating.)

The subjects’ ghrelin response differed significantly after each shake despite the fact that they drank the same shake—only the labels (and thus, the subjects’ perception of each shake) had changed. When participants consumed the “indulgent” shake, their ghrelin levels experienced a significantly steeper decline than when they drank the “health conscious” shake. Thinking they had indulged led them to feel more satisfied for longer (and become hungry later) than when consuming the supposedly healthier shake.

These findings suggest that the psychological mindset of sensibility while eating may actually dampen the effect of ghrelin.

The implications of this are significant. Grocery store shelves are loaded with products sporting many health claims on their labels, some of which may be misleading or even completely false. The combination of unhealthy nutrients with healthy proclamations may be especially dangerous. Not only is the product itself unhealthy, but the mindset of sensibility might correspond to an inadequate suppression of ghrelin, regardless of the actual nutrient makeup.

In other words, if someone believes they ate something healthy, they’ll likely become hungry again sooner, irrespective of whether or not the food they ate was actually healthy.

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