• If you're trying to cut fatty food from your diet, new research suggests you should look away from this image now. (EyeEm/Getty Images)
New research out of Japan suggests that even the best dieter can fall prey to the temptation of fast food if they're exposed to images of hamburgers and pizza while they're hungry.
By
Yasmin Noone

22 Aug 2019 - 2:27 PM  UPDATED 22 Aug 2019 - 3:13 PM

If you’re trying to cut down the amount of processed fatty food you consume, ‘out of sight out of mind’ may be an effective dietary strategy to follow.

A new study from Japan, published in the journal Appetite online, shows that the sight of fatty foods has a more powerful hold over us when we are hungry or fasting compared to when we are full.

The research, led by Kyoto University, also demonstrates that we’re generally more sensitive to the sight of food compared to other objects, regardless of whether we are hungry or satisfied.

“These results suggest that food captures our visual attention even when we are satiated, and that fat detection efficiency is heightened when we are hungry,” the study reads.

The study shows that if you’re exposed to images of fatty food while you’re hungry, then it’s highly likely you’re going to be more attracted to fatty food – at a faster rate – than any other object around you.

5 fast-food products VS 5 low-fat Japanese staples

The study involved 80 Japanese men and women who completed a stimuli test. At the time of the experiment, half the study’s participants reported being hungry, having fasted for more than three hours before arriving at the lab. The other half of the group said they were full when the experiment began.

During the test, participants were shown pictures of five types of fast food – a hamburger, a piece of pizza, a piece of fried chicken, fried potatoes, and a doughnut – as well as five items from the Japanese diet – tuna sushi, udon noodles, yakitori, niku-jaga (simmered meat and potatoes), and manju (a bun with a bean-jam filling).

The only major nutritional difference between foods in the two groups was the fat content: the amount of fat was higher in the fast food than in the Japanese diet items.

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Researchers then tested reaction times with participants fasting and those who had just had a meal to see how quick they detected images of fast food, low-fat food and non-food items.

The high-fat foods were detected more rapidly than low-fat foods in the hungry group.

The study shows that if you’re exposed to images of fatty food while you’re hungry, then it’s highly likely you’re going to be more attracted to fatty food – at a faster rate – than any other object around you.

Your hunger pangs may impact the food you choose to eat 

Other research highlights how hunger influences our diet and food choices.

A study from the USA, published in 2012, saw 100 overweight or obese women complete a food-related visual search task. The results showed that hunger levels increased the amount of time participants spent dwelling on fried food.

Research from The Netherlands, published online in 2009, also found that overweight or obese individuals automatically direct their attention to food-related stimuli, to a greater extent than normal-weight individuals. This effect was noted particularly when the overweight and obese participants were food-deprived. 

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An evolutionary drive for survival

Although the mechanism linking hunger to our detection of high-fat foods is unknown, the Japanese study’s authors hypothesise that it’s an innate, evolutionary reaction.

“People pay more attention to, and more rapidly detect, high-fat food than low-fat food when they feel hungry because high-fat food enhances their chances of survival and maintains their health,” the study reads.  

“In contrast, satiated people do not care about the fat content of their food.”

“Individuals who need to restrict their intake of dietary fat should avoid places where food items can be easily seen, especially when they feel hungry. Even when we feel satiated, food items still capture our visual attention.”

The fact is, in wealthy western countries like Australia, we don’t necessarily need to hunt out fatty foods in order to prevent starvation or a hunger-induced death.

“Nowadays, specifically in Westernised societies, such efficient visual attention to food or sensitivity to fat content sometimes affects human lives in a maladaptive manner, such as promoting the over-consumption of dietary fat and increasing the rate of obesity.”

The moral of this dietary story is clear: the evolutionary attraction to fatty food may be beyond your control if you’re surrounded by fast food outlets or images of fatty foods on social media or television. So, if you’re dieting or trying to reduce your consumption of fatty foods, it's best to avoid looking at tempting images until you’ve eaten a meal and feel full. Because too much fatty food can harm your health.  

“Individuals who need to restrict their intake of dietary fat should avoid places where food items can be easily seen, especially when they feel hungry. Even when we feel satiated, food items still capture our visual attention.”

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