visual food cues

In a recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers conduct a study to examine how the brain responds to visual food cues. The results indicate that large portion sizes, and high energy density can diminish processing areas of the brain involved in control.


In many countries, childhood obesity has become an epidemic. If this trend continues, it is predicted that by 2025, 70 million young children will be overweight. To combat this trajectory, researchers have conducted a study to explore how the brains of young children respond to images of food, in order to explore how visual food cues can influence the brain’s cognitive and reward processing systems. Previous studies have only examined specific regions of the brain and how they activate with food cues, however, this study uses whole-brain images to develop a more complete understanding of how the brain works in these circumstances.

Researchers used functional MRIs (fMRIs) to explore the brain activity of young children when they were presented with images of energy dense (ED) foods, and foods of varying portion sizes (PSs). Participants in this study were healthy children aged 7-10 years. After 4 training sessions, children were presented with images of foods with two different ED levels (low and high), and two different portion sizes (large and small), during which time researchers used fMRIs to take whole-brain images.

visual food cues

The results indicate that the areas of the brain involved in inhibition and information processing, and behavioural control of emotion, are less active when children are presented with images of large food portions in comparison to small food portions. Greater activation of brain regions involved in reward and taste processing was observed when children viewed high ED foods versus low ED foods. These results suggest that the food quantity is processed by the region of the brain involved in motivation and cognitive control, and ED is processed in regions involved in reward and emotion.

Understanding how the different areas of the brain respond to visual cues of ED and PS may be critical in understanding the brain-physiology involved in eating behaviours in children, and may guide future interventions for children in order to curb the obesity epidemic.


Written By: Nicole Pinto, HBSc

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