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Is Your Brain stingy or extravagant with calories

Posted Oct 09 2009 4:39am
  In an article entitled “Born Cheap” in New York magazine, the writer, Adam Sternbergh, asks whether we inherit the tendency to be frugal or extravagant with money. He describes families in which the sibling’s spending behavior reflects that of their parents. If one parent is obsessively concerned with saving money and the other thinks nothing of spontaneously buying an extravagant non-necessity, often the children will grow up to spend one way or the other.To answer critics who assumed that these spending behaviors were learned, scientists from MIT and other institutions took MRI brain scans of people who were given money and pictures of items on which they could spend the money. They were told they could keep whatever money they did not spend. The MRI scan detected different parts of the brain that were activated after the volunteers saw pictures of items whose price was either acceptable or too high. When the tightwads’ volunteers saw an item whose price in their opinion was too high, the scan showed that a brain region associated with encountering an unpleasant stimuli such as a disgusting smell was activated.   And when the volunteer saw an item he wanted, another area in the brain associated with pleasurable activities, the nucleus accumbens, became activated. Thus it was clear to the researchers that the brain might influence whether we buy or deny ourselves purchases.  Might these brain responses also hold true for people who keep track of how many calories they are consuming?   We all know people like the tightwads who would recoil at the idea of eating something dreadfully caloric even if the food was delicious and within their caloric budget. I have a friend like this. She and I once ended an all-day hike in the mountains in a village around late afternoon. It was a hot summer day and people were strolling around the village square eating large ice cream cones or sitting at cafes spooning ice cream sundaes. My mouth started to water and I suggested that we stop and also have some ice cream. After all, we had expended far more calories than we had eaten that day and certainly my barely 100-pound friend did not have to worry about being overweight. She looked at me as if I had suggested we eat roasted worms and said we could get some iced tea instead.I also have a friend who follows what some have called the See Food Diet, the one that goes something like this: “Whatever food I see that I like, I eat.” She exercises diligently, eats moderately-sized portions of meal food and does not eat out of emotional need. But she loves good food and when she sees something that she knows will taste good and give her pleasure; she never hesitates to eat it. The number of calories is irrelevant.   Occasionally, she moans about always having to lose 15 pounds but this does not stop her from eating what she wants.   She is a caloric spend-thrift and no more thinks about her weight while she is consuming some high-calorie food than an impulsive shopper thinks about a future credit card bill while impulsively buying a desirable item.Many of us fall somewhere in the middle, especially if we have struggled with our weight at some point and don’t want to continue to struggle. When we go to a restaurant, we may decide against ordering the chowder made with heavy cream or a fried dish because we know that the caloric cost is too high. On the other hand, having “saved those calories” we then may feel that we can eat dessert, especially if it is shared. This really is not too different from getting something on sale and deciding to spend the money saved on another item.According to the article on spending behavior, the new belief that spending habits may be, to some extent, hard-wired in our brains has led economists to rethink how to curb excessive spending and increase saving. One method proposed by Thaler and Sunstein in their book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness is to enroll employees automatically in a 401(k) savings plan. If the employee does not want to be enrolled, then he or she has to take action to leave the plan. This plan apparently increased enrollment to over 90% in a company that adopted it.Could we adopt this plan to get people to choose healthier and calorically responsible foods by making it harder for them to pick irresponsible ones? If some of us are born with brains that will not stop us from ordering a 1200-calorie fast food hamburger, then can we manipulate our food environment to make it harder for us to do so? A recent survey showed that displaying the caloric contents of foods in New York and New Jersey area restaurants had no impact on the food choices of customers and, if anything, people were ordering even higher calorie foods. Customers asked about their food choices expressed desire to get as much food for their money as possible or simply didn’t care how many calories they were eating.If we assume that some people‘s brains will make them uninterested in saving calories, then the approach to getting people to make healthier choices has to be similar to getting people to save money. In an ideal world, fast-food restaurants would offer a complete meal with hamburger, baked potato, vegetables and dessert (chocolate pudding prepared with skim milk for example) for the same price as a fat–laden bacon cheeseburger. Junk foods would be much costlier than fruits and cut-up vegetables and rather than being in a prominent place in convenience stores, hidden away in dark corners. If snack foods were put in clamshell plastic packaging, the kind that requires a hacksaw to open, fewer people would be able to rip open a bag of potato chips and eat them immediately after purchase.   Restaurants could reframe their menus to describe healthy specials in mouth-watering terms and excessively caloric foods in rather prosaic and possibly somewhat unappetizing terms. And if food manufacturers and restaurants could produce moderate calorie foods to taste like outrageously caloric varieties, many of us would be happy to eat these “rip-offs.” After all, we do that when we shop for clothes or accessories.   We don’t buy one-of-a-kind designer items in Paris or Milan. Most of us wait until a replica is available and affordable in a Target, Marshalls or Macys.  Obviously, certain foods will never be able to be made without costing an enormous number of calories.   Perhaps the only way to stop our urges for such foods is through advertising. Since it is the advertisers who made us yearn for foods that were unknown to us before they were marketed (I am thinking of Dove bars) couldn’t they make us stop yearning for these foods?   Maybe they can figure how to activate the part of our brain that responds to unpleasant odors when we see fried chicken, spare ribs, chocolate candy and ice cream.   And then we all can become tight wads when we decide how many calories we want to consume. 
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