19 March 2013,

Why Pictures of Food Make (some of) Us Fat


The onslaught of food imagery is cited as another key issue contributing to obesity. If it’s not Starbucks window dressing with cupcakes, or waiters thrusting iPad’s in my face with tonight’s desert selection, it’s the food network. Or the Superbowl. Or logging on to facebook to see advertisements come up on my newsfeed for specials and coupons. What is it about seeing food that makes us want it so much?


Not only does exposure to food related cues elicit appetitive drive, it appears that for people trying to lose weight visual food cues are more compelling leading to greater activity in the brain, and perhaps motivation to acquire these foods. Thus, the more you want to lose weight, the more likely you are to be sensitive (and thus act) on food related imagery. I don’t think I need to spell out why this is a problem.


See Food, Eat It?


We can probably relate to this scenario: we see a picture of chocolate cake, we immediately start thinking about how good it would taste, we seek it out and eat it. Yay!


Not such a dire problem. I think we can live with this.


Except… what happens if we see too many pictures of food? What if we are reminded about eating too frequently? What happens when we’re bombarded by food related imagery? We think of food more, we’re more motivated to seek it out, we eat it… and we gain weight… My YAY! Isn’t quite so bold.


…And then a critical important detail: what if you are more sensitive to food pictures than I am? Will you be more motivated (i.e. vulnerable) to food cues and advertisements? Could this help explain why some people suffer more with weight related issues than others?


Researchers at the University of Cardiff recently completed an investigation into the effect that visual food cues had on the brain. The idea, is that women who show more activation in areas associated with pleasure in the brain will be more motivated to pursue and acquire the food reward. One might expect that women with obesity would be more sensitive to food related imagery, and there are several studies that have shown this to be the case. However, in the present investigation, women were not distinguished by BMI but rather self reported tendency for dieting (NB: please click here for a similar test used in the investigation).


To make a long story short, researchers did find that women with high self reported tendencies for dieting were also significantly more sensitive to food related imagery. Sensitivity to food related imagery was measured by blood flow to an area in the brain called the Nucleus Accumbens, a part responsible for the sensation of pleasure and motivational drive. To break it down more clearly: when dieters saw pictures of food, more blood rushed to the part of the brain intimately linked with motivated action, than people who were not on a diet. So being on a diet makes you more sensitive to food imagery?


Good grief!


Eat Less, ‘Just’ Go on a Diet

This study goes to show the complexity of the ‘Eat Less’ issue. By going on a diet you make yourself inherently more sensitive to pictures of food, and for anyone who has done the Candida Cleanse/ Low Carb/ Low Cal routine, you’ll know what I mean. The first few weeks are awful! This study helps to explain where, how, and why this is the case: with an increased expectation for the food reward, you’re brain is pumped, primed, and ready for the chocolate cake. When you superimpose cognitive control, this may lead to an initial sensation of frustration.


SO, on an unrelated note: am I being hypocritical by ‘liking’ my budding-chef friends and family for putting up pictures of chocolate chip cookies on facebook, meanwhile slagging off the food industry for doing the same thing? Not really. When my friends and family put up pictures of food, the element being captured is typically a social celebration.  For whatever reason, in my mind the celebration of food and togetherness is altogether different from advertisements that exploit our sensitivity to the rewarding effects of fat and sugar. In my mind, cheese filled pizza crusts and chocolate sauce mountains are altogether different from spelt cookies and arugula salads.




Beaver, J. D., Lawrence, A. D., van Ditzhuijzen, J., Davis, M. H., Woods, A., & Calder, A. J. (2006). Individual differences in reward drive predict neural responses to images of food. J Neurosci, 26(19), 5160-5166.


Lawrence, N.S., Hinton, E.C., Parkinson, J.A., Lawrence, A.D. (2012). Nucleus accumbnens response to food cues predicts subsequent snack consumption in women and increased body mass index in those with reduced self copntrol. Neuroimage, 63: 415- 422.


8 responses on “Pictures of Cupcakes

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