On October 31st, 2017 we learned about

Our brains count calories when calculating how strongly food can break our concentration

As I write this, my kitchen is bursting with muffins, cookies and of course, Halloween candy. I haven’t had much to eat this evening, which is making the candy occupy a bigger part of my attention. Researchers have found that this sense of distraction seems to be hard-wired into us, as study participants have shown that even seeing what was called a “high energy snack,” like a muffin or candy bar, breaks our attention on other tasks. It doesn’t mean that we have to surrender our self-control to every piece of candy we see, but that our dietary needs can make us more distractable if our energy levels are low.

Anyone who has made the mistake of grocery shopping on an empty stomach knows how hunger can influence your decision making. These studies then look at the moments before you leave for the store- the time when you should be focused entirely on something else. For example, when asked to listen and respond to lists of words, we all respond faster to terms that can be associated with food. This shows how potentially grumbly tummies can make a difference in activities that don’t any contextual relationship with eating itself.

Counting calories very quickly

Newer studies have found even more nuance to our stomach’s grip on our brains. While categorizing symbols based on digits or letters on a screen, test participants were randomly shown brief flashes of different foods. The food was shown quickly enough to avoid breaking people’s concentration, but there was measurable difference in how people performed immediately afterwards. If the snack shown was a “low energy” food like celery, participants weren’t nearly as distracted as they were after seeing a calorie-rich cookie. So not only do we tune in on food in an instant, but we also quickly asses just how satisfying that snack may be.

A follow-up to this test looked at how empty stomachs might make this effect even stronger. While some test participants did the test without eating, others were fed two “fun-sized” candy bars. Complicating things further, new images were occasionally shown to participants in place of the low-calorie food items. So instead of carrots or celery, people might see of people making emotionally-charged expressions, like extreme fear or disgust. Humans have a hard time ignoring anything that even resembles a face, but apparently nothing beats a cupcake if we’re hungry. People who ate candy before the test were less enthralled by the photos of food, but the hungry participants could even ignore upset-looking people in comparison to a view of cake or muffins.

Apologies to anyone reading all this before meal time. If you’re still not feeling a bit peckish at this point, it probably means that you’re still feeling well-fed. For the rest of us, there may be some candy bars around here somewhere…

Source: Sidetracked by a donut?, EurekAlert!