Have you ever noticed you’re better at remembering where the Oreos are in your kitchen than the broccoli? There’s now a scientific explanation for that.
According to a research study published just last year, the human mind seems designed to efficiently locate higher-calorie foods in one’s environment. It’s part of our spatial memory, or the ability to recall certain locations or where one object is in relation to another. In particular, a particular feature of this spatial memory is this high-calorie spatial memory bias.
In the study, over 500 participants navigated a maze-like setting where either eight food products or eight food odors on cotton pads were placed throughout the environment. When arriving at each sample, participants would taste the food or smell the cotton pad.
After leaving the test, researchers asked participants to identify each food sample on a map of the room. Individuals were able to remember the correct location of high-calorie foods (like chocolate brownies and chips) significantly more frequently than their low-calorie alternatives (cherry tomatoes and apples).
What the Results Mean
The study suggests that our human minds are still optimized for energy‐efficient foraging, much like our early ancestors. Unlike early humans, though, we don’t have those same survival needs for such high amounts of fat and sugar. Instead, it’s those innate prioritizations of sweets and fats that are the leading contributions to the growing number of chronic conditions worldwide.
It seems, according to the study, that our high-calorie spatial memory bias—something we once used as a survival mechanism—no longer fits in to our current food-rich climate. Rather, our survival-driven preference for these foods may be driving our modern obsession with processed food.
Those subconscious spatial memories might be what makes it more difficult for some people to maintain healthy food choices, particularly if high-calorie foods are in the home because, subconsciously, we are more likely to remember the location of high-calorie foods better than other, healthier options.
Subsequently, bringing these higher-calorie, processed foods into the home may end up sabotaging the best intentions for healthy eating.
Prime Your Environment
Whether it’s your kitchen, living room, or workspace, your environment may be hindering your path to your best health. Here are 3 ways to reset your environment so making healthier choices becomes second-nature.
Have a Pantry Plan
A pantry (or cabinets) stocked with healthier choices means you’ll be more likely to reach for those selections first. Try to keep known trigger foods out of your home; throw junk food away. If you are going to keep it, make sure it’s very hard to get to (on the highest shelf in the cabinet), and don't leave it in plain sight. As the study above proves, out-of-sight, out-of-mind is truly key to optimizing spatial memory and making room for the healthier choice.
Turn Cooking Into a Habit
Derailing your goals in a willpower-depleted state is difficult if you’ve built a solid foundation of healthy habits. One of those is cooking. Once you’ve established cooking as habit (it takes roughly 2 months to form a new one), you’ll be reaching for your proteins and vegetables rather than the chip bag, even in an entirely exhausted and willpower-limited state.
Use Optical Illusion to Your Advantage
Visual cues are heavily relied upon to make decisions around how much we choose to eat and drink. A tall, skinny glass looks more full than a short, wide one. Likewise, food portions of the same size will look smaller on a large plate and bigger on a smaller one, leading to larger portions being served when the plate is bigger. Serving food on a small plate has the opposite effect: the portion looks larger; for many, the snack or meal is over when the plate or bowl is empty. Use these visuals to tackle a higher consumption of unhealthy foods or snacks.
The easier the choice, the more likely we are to do it. If we can optimize our environment—throwing out processed snacks to make room for nutritious food in our spatial memory—in a way that makes healthy choices easier, we’ll be more likely to stick to our health goals, like opting for the apple instead of the brownie.