Food Porn: The Good, the Bad and the All Too Pretty

Those gorgeous photos of perfectly presented dishes we can’t get enough of may prompt us to eat more, researchers say. But don’t worry; there’s good news, too.

If you can’t seem to stop yourself, despite your best efforts, from indulging in deliciously decadent foods, and you’re looking to point the finger elsewhere, science has just provided you with a new scapegoat: food porn.

Yes, friends, according to a recent research review conducted by an international group of psychologists and neuroscientists and published in the journal Brain and Cognition, those gorgeous photos of perfectly presented dishes and desserts we can’t get enough of — on Instagram, in magazines and cookbooks, and even (sorry) online — may be making us fat.

Drooling over pretty pics of pasta and gorgeous gateaux triggers “neural activity, physiological and psychological responses, and visual attention, especially in the ‘hungry’ brain,’” the authors write, making us (duh!) want to devour those foods with our mouths, not just our eyes.

“The taste cortex lights up,” the study’s lead author, Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at the University of Oxford, told the Guardian. “There’s an increase in blood-flow and, depending on the state of the person, or how realistic the image is, it might be triggering restraint mechanisms. You’re seeing it and thinking: ‘I shouldn’t be eating that.’”

But then, perhaps because of the way our brains are programmed to constantly be on the lookout for yummy (and, alas, caloric) foods to consume, we cave in like a souffle and reach for something to eat. We’re more apt to respond this way if we are already hungry or prone to overeating, the researchers concluded — again, not surprisingly.

Don’t despair, however; all is not lost. The authors suggest that our food-porn response — “visual hunger,” as they call it — can be used for good.

“There are, in fact, certain situations in which the increased visual exposure to food images can actually exert a beneficial effect over people’s food behaviors,” they write.

How so? Well, for example, being presented with appealing images of healthy foods might prompt people to reach for those instead of something less healthy. What’s more, some studies have shown that when people look at unhealthy foods and imagine eating a lot of them, they may actually feel satisfied and eat less of them. Plus, the more we know about our responses to the way foods are presented in images, the better we may become at styling healthy foods for maximum appeal in real life.

So, there you go — gaze away.

Photo courtesy of iStock
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