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Welcome to the website of the Nutritional Neuroscience Laboratory

The Nutritional Neuroscience lab studies the neural correlates of taste, satiety and (unhealthy) food choice, gut-brain interactions, effects of personality characteristics on food-induced brain responses and functional neuroimaging in anorexia nervosa. 

NOTICE: This website will be discontinued by the end of 2021. Resources can still be found at the OSF project pages of Paul Smeets.

ENLP writing competition

Published: Saturday, 19 April 2014

Nynke van der Laan has won the first prize in the Writing Competition of the European Nutrition Leadership Platform seminar with her popular scientific article on neuroscience based tips for healthy eating. 

My brain made me eat it: neuroscience-based tips for healthy eating

Confession: Yesterday evening, I failed to resist a chocolate cupcake. Not because I wanted to eat it, but because my brain left me no choice.

Neuroscientists are enthusiastically stating that “all eating decisions are made between our ears.” Research in the field of Nutritional Neuroscience is booming and not without reason: new technologies make it possible to study how our brain responds when we see or smell food and even during eating. Nutritional Neuroscience may have won its spurs as a fundamental science, but what does that mean for us in practise, when we stand in front of the lunch buffet? Can we really blame our brain for our unhealthy eating habits, and are we helpless victims? Recent findings suggest not. Here are a few neuroscience-based tips that might help you to eat healthier.

Tip 1: Eat mindful
Don’t deny it: many of us have loosened our belt a notch or two after a heavy yet highly satisfying meal. But why is it that we sometimes overeat, even when our bellies seem like they’re about to burst? A recent Dutch study sheds light on this issue by investigating the effects of stomach filling and oral exposure to food (sipping, tasting, and swallowing), on feelings of fullness, and the brain responses that go with it. The researchers scanned healthy volunteers’ brains after either injecting chocolate milk directly into the stomach (yikes!) or normal food ingestion (drinking chocolate milk). It turned out that participants felt fuller after drinking, and this was accompanied by activity in brain areas related to tasting and feelings of pleasure. Intriguingly, this suggests that the brain cannot track fullness very well when there is no or minimal exposure to the food in your mouth. So, next time you tuck into the buffet, don’t bolt your food, but eat slow and enjoy every bite of it!

Tip 2: Feed your brain with quality sleep
Have you ever experienced a desire for instantly energizing foods after a poor night’s sleep? If it makes you feel better, you’re not the only one who fails to resist those deliciously creamy caramel Frappuccinos at the Starbucks after pulling an all-nighter to finish an important report. It’s now well-known that sleep deprivation leads to increased hunger, more unhealthy food choices, and even weight gain. However, recently, American researchers investigated the brain response to food pictures after a few days of limited sleep and compared this to responses after normal sleeping. A sleepy brain’s reward system turned out to respond in a hyperactive way to food, especially if an appetizing energy-rich food was spotted. At the same time, activity was lower in prefrontal brain regions needed for self-control, making it even more difficult to resist tasty snacks. Hence, it’s better to feed your brain with quality sleep rather than high energy snacks.

Tip 3: Keep your brain stress-free
Do you wish there were more than 24 hours in a day? And do you often have too much month left at the end of your money? Or do you often argue with your partner? If you answered with ‘yes’ more than once, it is likely that you are often feeling stressed. Unfortunately this means you are prone to overeat. Stress stimulates the brain’s stress system and triggers the release of stress hormones. On the other hand, eating delicious foods (amongst other pleasurable activities) suppresses the activity of this system, leading to ‘comfort eating’. Last year, an American study revealed that reward centers in the brain of chronically stressed people have a particularly strong reaction to delicious, energy-rich snacks, making it literally impossible to deny them. So, next time you’re approaching an important deadline at work: better take an alternative route home to avoid walking past those tempting pastries at the local bakery.

A brain-based approach to healthy eating
Who knew neuroscience could provide such practical information? The scientific findings above suggest that the keys to healthy eating are to stop bolting your food, and to keep your brain well-rested and stress-free. As the Buddhists say, “it’s not about what you eat, but how you eat it.” Although we probably all agree that it is not so wise to live of fries and burgers alone, they’ve got a point, right? Put your brain on a diet with plenty of good sleep and relaxation and it will assist you in pursuing a healthy diet.



The Nutritional Neuroscience Lab is affiliated with the Image Sciences Institute of the UMC Utrecht, The Netherlands.