JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

For those of you who've resolved to reign in your waistline this year, new research may help you beat your goal. Scientists have a new focus - not what's going on in our bellies, but what's happening in our brains.

NPR's Allison Aubrey has more.

ALLISON AUBREY: I've hit upon the perfect place to make my point: Union Station, the train station here in D.C. It's loud, it's bustling, and there's food in every direction.

So what did you have for breakfast here this morning?

Ms. CAREE SCOTT: Coffee and a scone.

AUBREY: How about you?

Mr. GEORGE SCOTT: Coffee and a croissant.

AUBREY: Oh, that's a good breakfast.

Mr. SCOTT: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

AUBREY: Turns out this 10 a.m. snack is actually a second breakfast for George and Caree Scott. But who's counting? The cafe atmosphere is right, it's still the holidays - sort of - and traveler Shawn Beegah says why not indulge? Everybody seems to be doing it. With a steaming cup of coffee in front of him and distracted by some serious people-watching, Beegah tears into a giant, calzone-type creation.

What is it, actually?

Mr. SHAWN BEEGAH: It's like bacon, egg and cheese in like, a bread roll.

AUBREY: With a few layers of sausage thrown in, too.

Mr. BEEGAH: Yeah, it's probably going to cut a couple years off my life. But I mean, it's really good, so I'm enjoying myself right now. You should get one, actually.

AUBREY: Beegah says he usually does not eat this way. At home, he wouldn't think of loading up on triple portions of fatty foods for breakfast. But traveling, being on the go - it turns out Beegah's brain is processing food differently than if he were having a quiet meal in his own kitchen. The sensory overload can really throw off judgment, or inure us to the sensation of feeling full. Scientists are just beginning to understand how this disruption works.

Dr. SUZANNE HIGGS (University of Birmingham): I think there are lots of factors that come together to ultimately influence how much we eat.

AUBREY: Suzanne Higgs is a psychologist at the University of Birmingham, who's studying how our thinking processes and our state of mind influence what we eat.

Take distraction. Remember how I said that our calzone-eating friend at Union Station was distracted by all the people-watching? This may help explain why he chowed down so much at breakfast, and why he was likely to eat more as the day went on.

Higgs recently measured the differences between people who ate their lunch mindfully - paying attention to each bite of food - compared to people who watched TV or worked on their computers while eating.

Dr. HIGGS: When people are distracted from their lunch, we find that given the opportunity later in the day to consume cookies, they actually eat more cookies than if they weren't distracted when they ate their lunch.

AUBREY: So not only do people tend to consume more when they're not paying attention to a meal, but food also seems to taste duller.

In a recent study from the University of Manchester and Unilever, researcher Andy Woods experimented with varying levels of background noise in a dining room. He found as it gets louder, people lose their ability to perceive saltiness and sweetness. And he says there is one more thing...

Mr. ANDY WOODS (University of Manchester and Unilever): We also, though, found an intriguing link between food liking and background noise preference - such that when the person had quite liked the background noise, they would report that the food was more liked.

AUBREY: So if we want to enjoy what's on our plates, instead of jonesing for a second helping, maybe it wouldn't hurt to chill out and put on our favorite music during a meal. This may help.

But inevitably, we have to step back out into the world again, where temptation is everywhere.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SCOTT: I think there's so much emphasis on food all the time.

AUBREY: As scone and coffee lover Caree Scott says, look no further than magazines displayed at the grocery store checkout. They're all the same.

Ms. SCOTT: On every issue, there's a thing that says lose 20 pounds, you know, by spring, and then right underneath there, there's a picture of a cake.

AUBREY: Scott says the contradiction is almost laughable.

Ms. SCOTT: You can't have both. You can't lose weight and also have the cake.

AUBREY: Which is a hard reality to swallow. And probably why next, year I'll be back with another story on why it's so hard for people to stick with their diets.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

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