Wander down any street in Paris, and you will be struck by a number of differences from an American city. People speaking dozens of different languages, crowding tables on the sidewalk drinking wine and smoking cigarettes have become a familiar sight to me; but one aspect of Parisian life always manages to grab my attention: the bakeries. Hundreds of them, on every street corner, all bustling with activity and displaying their delicious wares behind wide glass windows. I was not prepared for the sheer amount of bakeries, and by the time I go home I might have gained a pound from croissants alone. What I really need is an intervention, but first I’m going to find out what it is makes those bakeries so difficult to walk away from.
Biology has tied the evolution of human vision to food behavior; it is thought that we developed the ability to see in color in response to demands of the foraging our ancestors had to do to survive (Bompas et al., 2013). But today, visual-cues related to food are everywhere, whether it be Parisian bakeries or billboards with burgers on them. There have been numerous studies investigating the role of food in brain function, and how specific nutrients affect various brain systems. For example, omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to support plasticity and help the brain recover from traumatic brain injury (Wu et al., 2007). Furthermore eating food, especially food rich in sugar, has been shown to activate the same dopamine-reward pathways activated by drugs (Hernandez & Hoebel, 1988). More recently, neuroscientists have been trying to determine a link between the consumption of food and visual cues in our environment. This research is of the utmost importance in our modern world, where advertising for food is everywhere and childhood obesity rates are at catastrophic proportions (Han et al., 2010). Studies have found that images of food can affect the human body in a variety of ways, including increased salivation, neural activity, and reward anticipation; food advertising is simply more powerful than most other forms (Spence et al., 2016).
The effects of food advertising can be more pronounced in individuals who have any sort of food related behavioral issue. A 2019 study used neuroimaging on the brains of adolescents who displayed “loss of control” eating behaviors and found that in these individuals there was increased brain activity when food related images were presented compared to control (Biehl et al., 2019). The researchers also found that obese patients performed poorly compared to controls on a goal oriented task when images of food were presented as distractors (Biehl et al., 2019). In an interesting parallel, another study performed a similar task with anorexic patients and found that they too are more likely to have task performance impeded by visual food cues (Neimeijer et al., 2017). These findings support the popular theory that food can be an addiction; actual changes in neural circuitry occur in patients with abnormal eating behaviors, resulting in a different response to food-related stimuli in the environment (Biehl et a 2019; Neimeijer et al., 2017). The two studies also underscore the effect that visual food stimuli can have; even the control group experienced greater brain activity to food cues compared to neutral cues, with an even greater difference when they were hungry.
Finally, science backs up my mother’s longstanding rule “never go to the grocery store on an empty stomach”. Parisian bakers have stumbled upon principles of neuroscience to draw pedestrians into their shops; seeing delicious pastries in a window captures one’s attention and sets off a series of neurological functions evolved to drive one to eat. It’s really no wonder I grab a coffee and a croissant every time I see a rack of them in a window; you can’t fight science!
Biehl SC, Ansorge U, Naumann E, Svaldi J (2019) Altered Processing of Visual Food Stimuli in Adolescents with Loss of Control Eating. Nutrients 11(2): 210
Bompas A, Kendall G, Sumner P (2013) Spotting Fruit versus Picking Fruit as the Selective Advantage of Human Colour Vision. i-Perception 4: 84-94
Han JC, Lawlor DA, Kimm SY (2010) Childhood obesity. Lancet 375: 1738-1748
Hernandez L & Hoebel BG (1988) Food reward and cocaine increase extracellular dopamine in the nucleus accumbens as measured by microdialysis. Life Sciences 42(18): 1705-1712
Neimeijer RAM, Roefs A, de Jong PJ (2017) Heightened attentional capture by visual food stimuli in anorexia nervosa. Journal of Abnormal Psychology 126(6):805-811
Spence C, Okajima K, Cheok AD, Petit O, Michel C (2016) Eating with our eyes: From visual hunger to digital satiation. Brain and Cognition 110: 53-63
Wu A, Ying Z, Gomez-Pinilla F (2007) Omega-3 fatty acids supplementation restores mechanisms that maintain brain homeostasis in traumatic brain injury. Journal of Neurotrauma 24(10): 1587-1595