DietBB Seminar Series: Self-control of eating - how does our brain choose food?

May 29, 2018

This question was topic at the DietBB seminar given by Dr. Nynke van der Laan in front of about 50 listeners.

Van der Laan works as Assistant Professor at the Institute for Persuasive Communication at the University of Amsterdam. She explores basics and new strategies to find out how consumers can be stimulated to make healthier food choices.

In her research, the neuroscientist measures the responses of the brain to images of food. For this purpose, subjects are shown food images in a functional magnetic resonance imaging scanner (fMRI) and the so-called BOLD signal is measured. Simplified, this signal reflects the oxygen amount of the blood stream to activated brain areas. In this way it can be examined in which brain areas the images trigger reactions. "When we show images of food, many areas are activated, for example areas for emotion, taste and areas which processing rewards." High calorie foods are considered more rewarding than those with fewer calories. Accordingly, the rewards processing areas are also activated more strongly.

An interesting question is, whether there are connections between food-related brain responses and personality characteristics. To investigate this question, van der Laan conducted a meta-analysis. "Based on the studies included in the analysis, it appears that only a few areas of food-related brain responses overlap with personality characteristics. However, it was found that among the personality factors studied, impulsivity is the most important characteristic in relation to the food-related responses of the brain“. In another study, she discovered that more impulsive study participants chose significantly more high energy snacks.

In the second part of her lecture, van der Laan discussed self-control in relation to food. Adults weigh positive and negative attributes of a food and then choose the food with the highest value (for them). For this process, two systems must interact in the Prefrontal Cortex: in the ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex, a value signal is created that values taste and health. When self-control is needed, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex modulates this signal. In adolescents, the Prefrontal Cortex is not yet fully mature. This area develops as one of the last in the brain and continues to mature until adulthood. Van der Laan showed that the functional connection between ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex and dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex is weaker in children than in adults. Children show a diminished activation of the dorsolateral Prefrontal Cortex when food decisions are made. For them, motivation seems to play a bigger role than self-control.

Finally, van der Laan presented a research method newly developed by her research group to better understand eating decisions. With fMRI-compatible VR (virtual reality) it is possible to test food decisions under simulated real conditions. For the simulation, a virtual supermarket was developed, through which the subject can walk and shop


Text: Dr. Maike Gutmann, DGE (TA6)