Luke Ayers, Widener University – What Drives Our Food Choices?

On Widener University Week: Is it harder to avoid the temptation of food when you’re hungry?

Luke Ayers, assistant professor of psychology, explores this seemingly simple question.

Luke Ayers has been an assistant professor in Widener University’s Psychology Department since 2013. His research career has focused on the biological basis of learning and memory, fear and anxiety behavior, and compulsive drug seeking. He teaches courses that provide students with a foundation in the biological basis of behavior, with specific focus on sensory perception, motor control, learning and memory, emotions, and psychiatric disorders. He received a PhD in Behavioral Neuroscience from the University of Delaware in 2013.

What Drives Our Food Choices?

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You always hear the old saying ‘never go to the grocery store hungry.’

The idea behind this is that when we’re hungry, we are more likely to make bad decisions about what we eat. My research is focused on evaluating this statement and trying to see how and why we are more tempted by unhealthy food when we’re hungry.

To answer these questions, my lab has begun to gather data to on how hunger affects our judgements about food, and our choices of what we eat.

Recently, we collected data which showed that that when individuals are hungry, they are more tempted by food, but they don’t differ in what they think or feel about those foods. So, in a sense, they are more motivated to eat all foods, even those items that they claim to know are unhealthy and should be avoided.

This finding is interesting because it strongly resembles the sort of conflict seen in addictive and compulsive behaviors – where an individual reports an urge to do something that strongly outweighs the conscious thoughts or desires about that action.

We think this is important because many people struggle with their eating habits. Many people have a lot of trouble maintaining a healthy diet, and with that comes a tremendous amount of shame, guilt and regret. These feelings may actually make the whole effort of being healthy that much more difficult.

So maybe we only think we are in control. Maybe when we are hungry it is not enough for us to want to make good choices; it is that we need to understand the factors that lead us to those good choices.

Understanding those factors that lead to good behaviors is my lab’s goal. If we can figure out those factors, maybe we’ll be able to help people make better decisions – both in and out of the grocery store.  

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