People eat with their hands and mouths, but the most important organ in our food consumption process is the brain. The sensation of taste is actually a complex mental phenomenon, shaped by evolution to help us recognize the five basic tastes. Our cravings for sweet foods, fat and saltiness enabled our ancient ancestors to consume the calories they needed to survive, lengthening their lifespan, while helping them avoid bitter tastes that indicated rotten or poisonous foods.
However, these same evolutionary traits that rewarded our ancestors are driving our society into obesity. Unlike most of the animal kingdom, humans are one of the few species inclined to overeat, an evolutionary feature meant to protect us. However, nearly 70% of adults in America are considered overweight. Marketers are incredibly successful at manipulating our evolutionary instincts to consume more food, from slapping it with attractive packaging at a grocery store to advertising a picture-perfect burger on TV (while serving a gross-looking one in person).
Our eating habits may be driven by the brain – what we crave, what we visualize eating, how much we think we’re consuming – but luckily, tricks exist to retrain your sense of taste to favor healthier foods. Tonight’s Brain Games breaks down three strategies that can help you turn all food into brain food.
1. Mix nutritious items with flavorful, attractive foods. Think that plate of spinach looks gross? Disguise it in a more tasty-looking recipe and dig in. When we’re used to seeing vibrant food packaging, designed by marketers specifically to appeal to our brains, good old vegetables may not look as attractive. Amy Fleming, a food writer for the Guardian, recommends a helpful strategy for making nourishing but not-particularly-good-tasting foods seem more appealing. To enable your brain to start loving healthy dishes, she writes, “all you need is the right recipe.”
For example, Fleming notes that she used to avoid eating kale, a vegetable loaded with nutrients such as vitamin A and fiber. Then, she started mixing the kale with garlic, chili, parmesan cheese, lime, anchovies and pasta to create a dish that appealed to her. These flavorful foods should incorporated wisely – if your recipe includes a pound of butter or cup of sugar, that neutralizes the nutritious effects of the good food – but when done correctly, remixing your healthy foods to your liking can improve your diet.
2. Use smaller plates and bowls when you eat. This week’s Brain Games runs an experiment involving two differently-sized plates and one identical portion of pasta. The pasta appears to be a larger portion on the smaller plate than the larger plate, and that’s the result of your brain being tricked into misconstruing the portion size.
Turns out, you can use this mental trick to your advantage if you’re trying to shrink your portions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends serving your meals on smaller plates to fool your eyes into thinking that you’re consuming a bigger portion than you actually are. It’s a common dieting trick, rooted in your brain’s perception of food.
3. To reduce the amount of sugar in your diet, cut down on salt. We consume far too much sugar and salt, an instinct that we can blame on our ancestors. Ancient survival mechanisms in your brain reward you with pleasure chemicals whenever you eat “comfort foods” – certain fats, sugars, and starchy foods. This triggers your brain’s reward center to release serotonin and dopamine, making your brain happier.
However, cutting down on salt can do wonders in reducing not only dangerous levels of sodium, but also sugar. According to Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Center director Dr. David Katz, cooking or baking sweet items with no salt and less sugar is a healthy way to achieve the same tastes as a full, more unhealthy recipe would. If you bake cookies, for instance, leave out the salt in the recipe, and use half of the amount of sugar you’d normally use. The cookies will still taste just as sweet, because the saltiness won’t cancel out some of the sweetness. Boom – healthier cookies.
For more Brain Games wisdom about eating and brains (but not actually eating brains!), don’t miss an all-new episode tonight at 9P.