Mon 12 Jan 2009
Welcome back from the Thanksgiving holiday. Who had a great Thanksgiving dinner? Who wished you didn’t eat all those extra calories?
Have you ever wondered why sometimes we overeat without even realizing it?
I’m going to summarize the latest food research for you so that you know the reasons behind our mindless eating.
Before we delve into the theories, here are some tips for reducing your food consumption mindlessly during the holidays or anytime of the year.
• Store tempting foods in less-convenient locations
• Learn to eat with chopsticks
• When eating with others, decide how much to eat prior to the meal instead of during it
• At buffets type holiday dinner, avoid having more than two different foods on the plate at the same time
• Use tall and slender glasses, smaller bowls and plates
Here are the researches behind these techniques. First, let’s go through some terminology. Consumption means how much food you eat.
When you eat, there are two types of external factors that affect how much you eat. The eating environment, which are the ambient factors associated with the eating of food, but are independent of food, such as lighting, social interactions that occur, or distractions. In contrast, food environment refers to factors that directly related to the way food is provided or presented, such as its visibility, structure, package or portion size and how it’s served. Both environments contribute directly to consumption volume; they can also contribute indirectly by suggesting consumption norms and inhibiting consumption monitoring.
I’ll speak to two types of eating environment factors affecting consumption. Remember, these are ambient factors independent of food.
One is that increased eating effort decreases consumption. Effort is related to the ease, access, or convenience with which a food can be consumed. It is one of the strongest influences on consumption. In a study of nonobese secretaries who were given Hershey’s kisses either on their desks or two meters away from their desk. When the candies were placed on their desks, secretaries ate 5.6 more chocolates a day than when they had to stand up and walk two meters for them.
Another investigation found that obese subjects were more likely to use silverware than chopsticks when compared to normal-weight patrons in Chinese restaurants. Of course, eating with chopsticks takes more effort.
The reason for this effect is that increased effort allows one to pause and reconsider whether he or she wants to eat more.
That’s why storing tempting foods in less-convenient locations and learning to eat with chopsticks can help you mindlessly eat less.
Another eating environment factor is socializing while eating, meaning eating with others. It’s well established that the presence of other people influences not only what is eaten, but it can also increase how much is eaten.
A study has shown that meals eaten with one other person were 33% larger than those eaten alone, and consumption increases of 47%, 58%, 69%, 70%, 72%, and 96% have been respectively associated with meals eaten with two, three, four, five, six, and seven or more people. Eating 96% more when you are eating with seven or more people, think about that.
The reasons are that eating with familiar people can lead to an extended meal. In other cases, simply observing another’s eating behavior—such as a role model, parent, friend, or even stranger —can provide a consumption norm that can also influence how much one eats. It also distracts one from monitoring how much food has been consumed already.
So when eating with others, decide how much to eat before the meal instead of during it. For example, you can set aside half the main dish and ask the waiter to pack it to go even before you start eating.
Now let’s move on to factors relating to food environment. Remember, these are factors directly related to the way food is provided or presented.
The first factor is that structure and perceived variety can drive consumption. And it’s true across a wide range of ages and for both genders. A study has shown that if consumers are offered an assortment with three different flavors of yogurt, they are likely to consume an average of 23% more yogurt than if offered only one flavor.
In another study people were given an assortment of 300 M&M candies that were presented in either seven or ten different colors. Although the taste of each color was identical, those who had been given a bowl with ten colors ate 43% more (91 versus 64 candies) over the course of an hour than those who had been given seven colors.
One reason this occurs is that increases in perceived variety make a person believe he or she will enjoy the assortment more. A second reason is that increasing the perceived variety can concurrently suggest an consumption norm in a particular situation.
So at a buffets type holiday dinner, avoid having more than two different foods on the plate at the same time.
The second food environment factor is serving containers that are wide or large create consumption illusions. More than 71% of a person’s caloric intake is consumed using serving aids such as bowls, plates, glasses, or utensils A study was conducted with teenagers at weight-loss camps showed teenagers to pour and drink 88% more juice or soda into short, wide glasses than into tall, slender glasses that held the same volume. These teenagers believed, however, they poured half as much as they actually did. This study has subsequently been repeated with nondieting adults with similar result. The reason is when people estimate how much soda or juice they have poured into a glass, there is a tendency to focus on the height of the liquid that has been poured and to downplay its width.
A study at an ice cream social demonstrated that people who were randomly given 24- or 16-ounce bowls dished out and consumed an average of 31% more ice cream when given the larger bowls.
The reason is there is a basic human tendency to use the size of plates, bowls, and spoons as an indication of how much should be served and consumed.
So this holiday, put away you large bowls and plates, and your short and wide glasses. Replace them with moderately sized bowls and plates, and tall and slender glasses.
The holiday eating environment directly encourages overconsumption because it involves parties (long eating durations), convenient leftovers (low eating effort), friends and relatives (eating with others), and a multitude of distractions. At the same time the food environment—the visibility, structure, size, shape, and stockpiles of food—also facilitates overconsumption.
By applying the findings of the latest research I’ve just presented, you will be able to develop an eating and food environment that reduces food consumption for all involved yet are effortless for the participants.
Your guests will thank you when they reflect on the fact that they enjoyed your Christmas dinner and yet didn’t overeat.
Happy holidays and enjoy the potluck.
ENVIRONMENTAL FACTORS THAT INCREASE THE FOOD INTAKE AND CONSUMPTION VOLUME OF UNKNOWING CONSUMERS∗