From the potential ban on trans fats in New York city, to television personalities who constantly obsess over food, it’s clear that we are a nation with issues about how we get our nutrition. I know I spend about half of my waking hours thinking about where and when my next meal will be (which is ridiculous, considering how easily I come by my meals). In light of how much we consciously think about food, it’s interesting to consider how pervasive subconscious processes affect our eating habits.
In a recent interview published at Salon, Brian Wansink of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab discusses how our brains and our bodies negotiate to decide when we should stop eating. He describes some of the cues in each meal that tell us to keep going whether we like it or not.
We set these cues up for ourselves (or our hosts do it for us); factors such as table arrangement, plate size, our company at the table, where we store our food, and others all affect how much we choose to eat. Wansink describes one striking example of subjects who ate more despite being thoroughly educated about the affect of eating from a larger bowl:
So, as an experiment, we took a bunch of really intelligent people — MBA graduate students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign — competitive students who had gotten into graduate school. I spent 90 minutes informing them that if they serve from a big bowl, they’re going to take more than if they serve from a medium bowl. I demonstrated it. I lectured about it. I showed them a video about it. I even broke them into discussion groups so that they could discuss ways they could prevent it from happening to them. I did everything short of an interpretive dance.
Then, they went away for a holiday break. When they came back I invited them to a Super Bowl party at the end of January, six weeks later. As they came to the party they went to one of two rooms. In one room, they were given a bowl, but sitting in front of them was two large, gallon bowls of Chex Mix. Then, they served themselves, and we weighed how much they’d taken.
We did this in a very sneaky way. We handed them something that they had to fill out, so they had to put their plate down, and there was a scale, concealed by a tablecloth, underneath where they put their plate. At the same time, 20 of their colleagues were going through a different room that had four medium half-gallon bowls of Chex Mix. So, instead of large bowls they served from medium-size bowls, but it’s the same total volume of Chex Mix.
When people served themselves from the huge bowls, they served themselves 53 percent more Chex Mix. Now, these were smart people and they were very well informed. In fact, six weeks earlier we’d spent 90 minutes drilling them over and over and over again about how big bowls cause you to pour more. So, after the Super Bowl was over we weighed how much they’d actually eaten, and the people who served from the huge bowls ate 57 percent more.
When we said, “Hey, here’s what’s happened. We told you guys about this six weeks ago, why did you get fooled?” people were still unwilling to say that the size of the bowl fooled them. They’ll deny it until they’re blue in the face. They say: “Oh, well, yeah, I was really hungry today,” or “I skipped lunch,” or “It smelled really good.” They’ll say anything but that bowl could have possibly influenced them.
Our eyes really may be bigger than our stomachs, and that does not bode well for a nation continually feeding the reaper with its incessant addiction to food.
In another example of super-sneaky research, Dr. Wansink describes serving subjects in “bottomless soup bowls” that discretely refill as soon as they are half-empty. It turns out that people eating from these bowls tend to keep eating just because there is still soup there; and they don’t just eat a little more; we’re talking as high as 73% more soup.
A lot of this has been known for a long time, but Wansink is adding a quantitative backbone to the ideas. Restaurants could easily take advantage of these results to help people eat more reasonable portions, but they won’t, because they’re much happier taking advantage of the results to help people eat hugantic portions.
Thanks to Garnet for the link.