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TRENDING SCIENCE: Keep finding your way to junk food instead of healthy snacks? It’s genetics, study finds

Research suggests humans are better at remembering the location of high-calorie foods over their healthy alternatives.

Fundamental Research

Are our brains hardwired to reach out for a burger instead of an apple? Our hunter-gatherer ancestors are to blame, according to new research published in the journal ‘Scientific Reports’. It’s instincts such as these that helped prehistoric nomadic groups avoid starvation by looking for high-calorie foods. This is what makes us better at remembering where junk food is. What was a blessing for ancient humans may be a curse for us modern folk.

Blame it on the brain!

“Human minds seem to be designed for efficiently locating high-calorie, energy-rich foods in our environment,” lead author Rachelle de Vries, a PhD candidate at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, told ‘Inverse’. “This memory bias may still influence how we navigate modern food settings today.” “Our findings are based on the idea that locating valuable calorie-dense resources within a fluctuating food environment was an important and regularly occurring problem for our hunter-gatherer ancestors,” de Vries explained. “As a result, those with a better memory for where and when high-calorie food resources would be available were likely to have a survival or fitness advantage.” “The high-calorie bias in spatial memory could negatively influence our eating behavior, within the context of the modern ‘obesogenic’ food environment, where high-calorie foods are already very available and accessible,” de Vries added.

Are you what you eat?

Researchers from the Netherlands demonstrated that people are better able to recall the location of high-calorie foods irrespective of their food choices or familiarity. To measure food location memory, they asked 512 people to follow a fixed route around a room that contained either 8 food samples to eat or 8 food odours on cotton swabs to smell. The samples consisted of high- and low-calorie items such as apples, chocolate, tomatoes and chips. The participants answered questions about the food as they tasted and smelled, including how much they liked it or how familiar it was. Then the volunteers were asked to indicate the correct location of each food or food odour sample on a map of the room. The findings show that those presented with food samples were 27 % more accurate. Those presented with food odour samples were 28 % more accurate at mapping high-calorie than low-calorie foods to the correct location. Spatial memory – a process that enables us to remember where objects are in relation to each other – was not influenced by whether foods were sweet or savoury, or how much participants liked each sample. Overall, participants’ mapping of foods was 243 % more accurate when they were presented with food as opposed to cotton pads. “These results are exciting because they give us more insight into our cognitive architecture, or how human minds are ‘wired’ to respond to objects that had fitness-relevance in our evolutionary history,” de Vries concluded. “We are currently busy with further unpacking how exactly the high-calorie bias in human spatial memory may directly or indirectly influence the foods we choose to regularly eat or the food locations we regularly visit.”

Keywords

food, calorie, high-calorie food, memory, junk food