What Big Eyes You Have

04 Dec

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.


Posted by on December 4, 2006 in Alchemy


8 responses to “What Big Eyes You Have

  1. Dan

    December 4, 2006 at 3:25 pm

    I heard this guy interviewed on NPR, it was a pretty interesting piece. That’s why I’m switching to eating all of my food off of tea saucers.

  2. Gen

    December 4, 2006 at 6:41 pm

    You know, this is something people should take note of at bars too. Sometimes a waitress or bartender will keep refilling your cup after you’ve drank about 1/2 ant before yuo know it you’re entirely lost track of how much beer has actually been consumed. 1 pint, 3 pints, a pitcher… that can be a dangerous difference, especially if people think they’ve had a lot less and then go to drive home.

  3. halfawake

    December 4, 2006 at 10:15 pm

    That’s a great point, Gen! The same goes for friends who continually refill your cup from the pitcher. We’re terrible at counting how much we consume when we’re sober, we must be worse when we’re drunk.

  4. zappoman

    December 5, 2006 at 5:00 pm

    This is a very interesting subject. I randomly landed on a blog the other day by Art De Vany, PhD. He’s got some pretty wild ideas about endurance sports, which as an Ironman and a Marathoner disturb me a little bit… but he also has done some very interesting research into the Evolutionary science behind why we, with our “cavemen” physiology get so fat, so easily in a world of readily available high energy food sources.

  5. halfawake

    December 6, 2006 at 2:00 am

    Thanks for the link zappoman. The intro was interesting. I wonder — is overeating in a world of “high energy food” specific to humans? Do other mammals do the same thing?

  6. trifrog

    December 8, 2006 at 5:36 pm

    I’ve heard the same thing based on plate size. That if you buy some gargantuan dinner plates at Pottery Barn because they ‘look nice’, you’re setting yourself up for overeating. Apparently, the brain is tricked into thinking that one must fill up their dinner plate and furthermore, into eating whatever is on the plate. When the plates are smaller, you put less food on the plate to begin with and you are just as satiated after you’ve eaten that smaller portion because you’ve ‘finished’ your food.

    Seconds anyone?

  7. zappoman

    December 9, 2006 at 4:03 am

    Certainly, I know that in my life I have always struggled with eating everything in front of me. If it’s on my plate I am very likely to eat it.

    I always heard this was from my mom/dad/parent saying something like “eat that food, don’t you know there are starving children in the world”… but I honestly never remember my parents saying that.

    No, I think I believe the other theory I’ve heard more recently that as primitive hunter gatherers it was so common for us to go for days and days without food, that we adapted to overeat when we had the chance. Or I should say those primitive men that didn’t overeat when there was food available probably didn’t make thrive as well as the ones that did. And as a result we are genetically predisposed to eating everything we see in front of us.

    I think the real question (for those of us who suffer from this gene more than others) is what is our strategy to counter act this predisposition.

    At a restaurant, I’ve heard of the trick of cutting your meal in half and possibly even asking for a dogie bag at the start of the meal. I wish I could do this 100% of the time… I think I succeed at this strategy maybe 25% of the time.

    Certainly another approach is to load up on green vegitables. They can’t hurt you… and they are filling… and they are probably as close as you can get to what a primitive man would have eaten most of the time.

    If anyone finds a magic solution, please let me know. 😉

  8. halfawake

    December 9, 2006 at 7:24 pm

    Certainly another approach is to load up on green vegitables. They can’t hurt you… and they are filling… and they are probably as close as you can get to what a primitive man would have eaten most of the time.

    I like this approach, but alot of my peers claim that they don’t “feel” full unless they eat meat. I think that’s more psychological than genetic, but I don’t know a good strategy for getting around it.


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