Do you eat with your eyes, your gut, or your brain? A neuroscientist explains how to listen to your hunger during the holidays

The holiday season is here and with it comes the opportunity to indulge in festivals. The adage that you eat with your eyes first seems especially relevant this time of year.

However, the science behind eating behavior suggests that the process of deciding what, when, and how much to eat is more complex than simply taking in calories when your body needs it to fuel. Hunger signals are part of why people choose to eat. As a scientist interested in the psychology and biology that drive eating behavior, I am fascinated by how the brain interacts with experience to shape eating decisions.

So how do people decide when to eat?

eat with your eyes

Food-related visual cues can shape feeding behavior in both people and animals. For example, wrapping food in McDonald’s packaging is enough to enhance taste preferences in a variety of foods from chicken nuggets to carrots in young children. Visual food-related cues, such as presenting light when food is delivered, may also promote overeating behavior in animals by meeting energy needs.

In fact, a whole range of sensory stimuli, including noises, smells, and textures, may be associated with pleasurable consequences of eating and may influence food-related decisions. This is why hearing a catchy radio jingle for a food brand, watching a television commercial for a restaurant, or walking by your favorite eatery can shape your decision to consume and sometimes overindulge.

Your senses consume as much food as your stomach.
Katherine McQueen/Moment via Getty Images

However, your ability to perceive food-related cues extends beyond stimuli from the outside world and also includes your body’s internal environment. In other words, you also eat with your stomach in mind, and you do so using the same learning and brain mechanisms involved in processing food-related stimuli from the outside world. These internal signals, also called interoceptive signals, include feelings of hunger and fullness emanating from your gastrointestinal tract.

It’s no surprise that signals from your stomach help decide when to eat, but the role of these signals goes deeper than you might imagine.

trust your gut

Feelings of hunger or fullness serve as important interoceptive cues that influence your decision making regarding food.

To examine how interoceptive states shape eating behavior, researchers trained laboratory rats to associate feelings of hunger or satiety with whether or not they received food. They gave rats food only when they were hungry or full, forcing the rats to recognize internal cues to calculate whether food would be available. If a rat is trained to expect food only when hungry, it will generally avoid the area where food is available when it is full because it does not expect to find food.

However, when rats were injected with an appetite-stimulating hormone called ghrelin, they approached the food delivery location more often. This suggests that rats used this artificial state of hunger as an interoceptive signal to predict food delivery and subsequently behaved as they expected when they received food.

Interoceptive states are sufficient to shape feeding behavior even in the absence of external sensory cues. A particularly striking example comes from mice that have been genetically engineered to be unable to taste food, but still show preferences for specific foods based only on calorie content. In other words, rodents can use internal cues to make their feeding decisions, including when and where to eat and which food they prefer.

These findings also show that the feeling of hunger and the detection of nutrients are not limited to the stomach. These also include brain areas important for regulation and homeostasis, such as the lateral hypothalamus, as well as brain centers involved in learning and memory, such as the hippocampus.

what happens in vegas

The gut-brain axis, or the biochemical connection between your gut and your brain, shapes eating behavior in many ways. One of them involves the vagus nerve, a cranial nerve that helps control the digestive system, among other things.

The vagus nerve rapidly transmits nutrient information to the brain. Activating the vagus nerve can induce a pleasurable state, such that rats will voluntarily perform behaviors such as poking their nose through an open port in order to stimulate their vagus nerve. Importantly, rats also learn to prefer foods and locations where vagus nerve stimulation occurs.

Your gut and brain are closely connected.

The vagus nerve plays an essential role in transmitting not only digestive signals but also a range of other endocrine signals that can affect the way you feel and behave. In people, vagus nerve stimulation can improve learning and memory and can be used to treat major depression.

Benefits of Interdisciplinary Awareness

Your body’s ability to use both external and internal cues to regulate how you learn and make decisions about food sheds light on the influential processes involved in controlling your energy needs.

Poor interoceptive awareness is associated with a variety of dysfunctional eating behaviors, such as eating disorders. For example, anorexia can occur when interoceptive signals, such as the feeling of hunger, are unable to trigger the motivation to eat. Alternatively, the inability to use the feeling of satiety may result in overeating, reducing the beneficial and pleasurable consequences of eating tasty foods.

Your enteric signals play an important role in regulating your daily eating patterns. During the holidays, there are many stressors from the outside world surrounding eating, such as busy social calendars, pressure to conform, and feelings of guilt over overeating. At this time, it is especially important to develop a strong connection with your interoceptive signals. This can help promote intuitive eating and a more holistic approach to your dietary habits. Instead of focusing on external factors and placing conditions on your eating behavior, enjoy the moment, intentionally savoring each piece and allowing time for your interoceptive cues to function in the role they were designed for. Are.

Your brain evolved to understand your current energy needs. By integrating these cues with your experience of the food environment, you can optimize your energetic needs and enjoy the season.

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