The Reasons Why We Eat More Than We Realize
The palatability of a food may also be influenced by other factors than their sensory impression, taste or flavour. There is, in fact, a substantial number of environmental cues which are able to influence our perception of the various dishes, influencing, thus, our food choices and the volume of food ingested. These constraints, that act below the level of consciousness, would have been neglected by traditional Dietetics, which would have underestimated their impact on our daily eating habits. As a result, the hyper-eating is not, in most cases, due to a real sense of hunger, but to social, physiological, psychological and cultural causes that do not ask at all to judge our stomach's appetite.
This are the results of experimental studies by American Brian Wansink, Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, who has conducted several researches in this field. The scholar attributes the epidemic of overweight and obesity, indomitable wounds of post-modern society, to mindless eating, that is the habit to consume food unconsciously. Many small elements combine to make us binge, through inhibition of the mechanisms of control over our eating behaviour: the possibility to serve the food directly from the tray on the table, big dishes used, eating absent-mindedly while doing something else, and so on. So, according to Dr. Wansink, most people do not usually make deliberate food choices but, as opposite, suffer an environmental conditioning whose power is underestimated.
More often than not, the signal that alerts us to stop eating is not an endogenous mechanism, but a piece of information which is retrieved from the outside, for example, according to the times marked by our table companions. Indeed, we have the unconscious tendency to conform our behavior to the conduct of people with whom we are interacting. Other times, we stop eating because it is time to return to work, or because the food on our plate is finished, or even because our favourite TV programme has ended. This implies that we would continue to eat even further if, instead, we had more time, more food or more voracious friends.
Dr. Wansink has invented an experimental device to deceive the perception of participants in his research: a bottomless bowl that can be filled with soup without the knowledge of the person who is eating. This ploy can almost double the amount of soup eaten by the subjects, demonstrating that it is the sense of fullness to run the stop sign at food consumption.
Even the lighting and noise levels seem to influence the duration of the meal. Several studies show that soft lights encourage a longer stay at the table and the request for an extra drink or dessert. Moreover, the darkness prevents a realistic estimate of the amount of food contained in our plate, causing the unwitting ingestion of plentiful portions. Even a soft background music tends to favour a slower pace of the meal, encouraging the intake of additional courses.
Visual Marketing employs various strategies to encourage consumers to purchase, using a clear framework to attract attention through eye-catching packaging and a clever arrangement on the shelves. Have you ever wondered why small items like gum and candy are close to the checkout counters in supermarkets? That’s because the buyer can always find a corner in the trolley to add them to the shop!
Dr. Wansink, Professor of Marketing, aims to reverse these techniques to discourage the consumption of unhealthy foods. The American scholar has shown, for example, that the establishment of fast checkout counters for buyers of low-calorie dishes, can even duplicate their sales in a school canteen.
Accessibility is one of the factors which are mostly responsible for eating decisions: whether a certain food is not readily available, there will be increased probability of choosing something else, although less tasty. Several investigations show that the amount of food ingested is inversely proportional to the effort necessary to achieve it or prepare it. Therefore, by modifying slightly the environment in which meals are consumed, we can easily accomplish the result of small portions and healthier food preferences, without no efforts. The rack of cookies should be higher than that of fruit and vegetables, the plates used should be not too large, we should avoid eating directly from the package because not seeing the food make us lose track of the portion consumed, and finally, we should not bring too much food on the table. The implementation of a simple perceptual self-deception could be effective as well: let’s get some less food than we would be prepared to eat. At that moment we won’t realize the difference, but then the scale will agree with us: using these devices might even save us from 100 to 300 calories a day without stress!
Marzia Vaccaro – I Like Italy
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