This Is Your Brain on Food

It's a mild spring day. You're walking down the street. You aren't particularly focused on food. But you pass a sidewalk café. As you stroll by, the scent of rosemary-rubbed lamb insinuates itself on you. You turn and notice not only that steaming plate the waiter has just delivered but a dozen other entrees in various states of consumption. Those garlic mashed potatoes. The pasta with everything. To say nothing of that pristine wedge of cheesecake scribbled with raspberry puree.

And suddenly you are seized with the desire to stop and tuck into something… anything.

The mere display of food—looking, smelling, without even eating—sends your brain into a tizzy. Scientists report that just looking at foods you like activates a part of your brain that controls drive and pleasure. And that correlates closely with your desire for food.

It is no consolation to learn that the areas of the brain that are involved in the desire for food are the same brain circuits involved in drug addiction. It's a part of your brain that's very sensitive to food stimuli. Technically, it's known as the orbitofrontal cortex, and the mere sight of food can turn the brain cells on in that area and rev up brain cell metabolism so the region lights up like a firecracker in brain scans.

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Seeing or smelling the food in fact gives a kick to metabolism throughout the brain, but the area most affected is the orbitofrontal cortex. Among study participants, who underwent brain scans after being presented with dishes they liked (all warmed up to maximize their aromatic potential), seeing or smelling food also lead to reports of increased hunger and increases in desire for food.

The problem is, there's food all around us, making us want to eat all the time. You look at a magazine and the luscious photos of food start the juices flowing in your stomach because they've pounced on your brain. You go to the shopping mall and you can't get very far without passing a food court loaded with some of your favorite fast foods and guilty pleasures.

Try walking in an airport… food greets you almost everywhere on the way to the gate. And from it. And where there isn't freshly prepared food, candy machines have taken over. You're not even safe at the movies. Or if you stay home and turn on TV; there's always the Food Channel to whip your brain into a frenzy of desire.

Here's how one physician puts it who studies the brain's reactions: "The high sensitivity of this brain region to food stimuli, coupled with the huge number and variety of these stimuli in the environment, likely contributes to the epidemic of obesity in this country." You see or smell the food and suddenly you are consumed with the irresistible desire for it.

What's the sane thing to do in a food-filled world that beckons to you even if you've been good and haven't put a morsel of food in your mouth? Well, for starters, you might want to take a different path down the street. And carefully plot your course through the shopping mall. And don't even think of looking at a food magazine when you're anything less than full.

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