Something to Read When You're Bored

Do you know why you eat?
March 19, 2008, 6:36 pm
Filed under: Food, Interesting | Tags: ,

This morning one of my coworkers (Rich) laughed at me when I told him I was covering up the stack of cookies he brought in because seeing them made me want to eat them. I defended my actions by informing him that there have been studies documenting the phenomenon of food visibility increasing consumption, but I still didn’t get the impression he believed me. So I of course decided to do some digging and prove to him that my snickerdoodle concealing behavior was not absurd.

The article I found on the subject was pretty fascinating. It was published this January in a journal sponsored by the CDC and it discusses food visibility, as well as many other factors we tend to be unaware of, all of which influence what, when, and how much we eat. The basic argument the article makes is that eating is an automatic behavior – something we do without really making a conscious decision to – and that consequently it may be more effective to change environmental factors that effect eating behaviors than to depend on conscious choice for determining what we eat. Here are some of the findings that really made an impression on me (these are quotes verbatim from the article):

People served larger portions simply eat more food, regardless of their body weight and regardless of the food item, meal setting, or timing of other meals; and the temptation to eat food at hand is so strong that human beings eat more even if the food tastes bad.

The amount of food consumed increases as the effort to eat it decreases, even if the differences in effort are tiny (the example they gave of this was a bowl of candy within reach, rather than a few feet away)

The mere sight of food can stimulate people to eat (Take that Rich!)

The longer the meal, the more people eat. The amount of food people eat is directly and strongly related to the number of people sharing the meal, with food consumption increasing by 28% when one other person is present and increasing steadily to 71% when the number of companions is six or more.

The article also discussed findings about how humans are unconsciously influenced by environmental factors in general, which can impact human behavior in all sorts of ways, including how we eat. Here are the highlights (some slightly paraphrased by me):

Environmental perceptions occur without awareness, and many behavioral responses similarly occur without awareness or conscious thought.

Behavioral responses to environmental stimuli can be influenced by priming – the manipulation of decisions and judgments by the previous presentation of words, concepts, or images that are not perceived as being related to the task at hand. (an example of this was a study where subjects who were shown a happy face drank more fruit-flavored drink and rated it more favorably than subjects who were shown an angry face)

Another determinant of how human beings respond to their environment is salience, that is, how much it attracts their attention. Research has shown that when the amount of shelf space for a consumer item is doubled in grocery stores, sales of that item increase by about 40%. Sales also increase when special displays and end-aisle displays are used and when items are placed at eye level.

I know this is getting pretty long, but here’s where it really starts to get interesting, when they describe how eating can be viewed as an automatic behavior, rather than something we do by conscious choice:

[examples of automatic behaviors] Humans smile or laugh when amused, frown when annoyed, become startled when surprised by a loud noise, and tense their muscles when threatened, all without making any conscious decision or being aware of the behavior. In conversation people copy others’ mannerisms, such as smiling, rubbing their face, and shaking their feet, regardless of whether they are acquainted with the other people and without the slightest recognition that they are copying them.

Studies on food consumption indicate that eating should be viewed as an automatic behavior; people are generally not aware of how much they are eating.

Evidence that eating begins without conscious intent can be taken from both the tendency to eat any food that is in sight or at arm’s length, as well as the finding that people are more likely to eat simply because it is mealtime than because they are hungry.

Once people initiate eating, they usually continue until the food is gone or until some other external occurrence changes the situation.

The natural trajectory of eating – that is, what takes place without conscious effort – is for it to continue. Effort is not required to continue eating when food is present; effort is required to refrain from eating when food is present.

The amount of effort required to refrain from eating when food is present is substantial, and it is nearly impossible to sustain over the long term.

Okay, here’s the part that really kinda blew my mind:

In general, human self-control over automatic behaviors is limited. Self-control tires like a muscle and taxes our ability to perform other tasks. And just as refusing food depletes a person’s mental reserves, tasks requiring mental effort can reduce the ability to resist the temptation of food. (this explains why I eat like crazy when I’m stressed out)

Because people are unaware of automatic behaviors, they are also unaware that the behaviors are not under control; people tend to fabricate reasons to explain their behaviors, typically choosing the most plausible, culturally acceptable theories.

And finally, to wrap it all up, here’s the entire closing paragraph from the section about automatic behaviors:

If the behavior of eating were automatic, one would predict that it would favor foods that are most available and most visible and that require the least effort to eat — such as precooked and prepackaged foods and beverages that can be eaten without utensils. In fact, the foods that have shown the greatest increase in sales in the past quarter century meet this description: soft drinks, salty snacks, French fries, and pizza.

Okay, so now you probably don’t even need to read the article after my excessive summing-up, but I just found it all too fascinating to leave anything out. Now I’m really thinking about how I might be able to improve my eating habits by adjusting environmental factors instead of depending on my self-control muscles which evidently are bound to eventually get worn out and give up anyway. I also thought this take on things might help out Margaret, who was more than a little disturbed after reading a Scientific American article that convinced her she’s a food addict. Turns out we all are, yay!


Constructive Eating
February 20, 2008, 12:03 pm
Filed under: Food, Neat Stuff | Tags: ,

An excellent new way for kids to play with their food.


I think the bulldozer to help get food onto your spoon or fork is pretty brilliant. Once again, I may need to get these for my niece.

(I saw these on a coworker’s blog, but don’t want to give away one of my favorite sources. You can find out more about the fun eating utensils here.)

Michael Pollan
February 19, 2008, 3:26 pm
Filed under: Food, Interesting

I meant to write about this last week but ended up getting sick instead. Last Thursday I got to see Michael Pollan talk at Starbucks headquarters (thanks to a sweet inside connection with Erica), and I thought that what he had to say was pretty compelling (and also, of course, convinced me that I need to own his latest book).

The only book of his that I’ve read is The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was completely fascinating but had the troublesome side effect of making it almost impossible for me to eat. The decision of what to eat became linked to inhumane conditions for animals, destructive synthetic flavors and preservatives, and global repercussions; grocery stores were suddenly the new forum for defining my ethical beliefs and values, while trying not to kill myself with evil evil high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated oils. Anyway, the point is that I was easily pulled in when Mr. Pollan began his talk by describing how many of his readers had told him that they were unable to finish The Omnivore’s Dilemma because they were afraid that if they finished it there wouldn’t be anything left that they could eat. I was intrigued.

He went on to describe how his new book is intended to help make eating easier again for all of his distraught readers. I liked the sound of this new direction. Next he treated us to his interpretation of our (American) collective cultural belief system about eating, which he called Nutritionalism. There were four basic components of this belief system. First, that foods are essentially the sum of their nutrients-that every food can be broken down into carbs, fats, and so on, and that this breakdown more or less defines the character of the food. Second is that these nutrients aren’t something you can see – only scientists with microscopes are able to figure out what nutrients are in food. This naturally flows into the third premise, which is that we need professionals to tell us how to eat properly, hence the never-ending stream of articles and publications letting us know what new wonder-nutrient is going to solve everything and make us live forever and what foods you need to start eating three times a day in order to get enough of said nutrient. That brings us to the fourth part of the Nutritionalism theory, my favorite part, which is the idea that nutrients are like superheroes; there are super evil nemesis nutrients that are going to kill you- or worse, make you fat. Those would include things like the above-mentioned high fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated oils. But you can fight off those demonic little buggers with the angelic wonder-nutrients like fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, and antioxidants (kill those free radicals!).

All in all I thought Mr. Pollan’s theory was pretty astute. I also smugly enjoyed the feeling that my personal attitude about food has expanded beyond the typical American perspective, although when I think about it, maybe not enough. Anyhow, he went on to point out that there are a lot of other really good reasons for eating food, besides the one we all obsess about, which is essentially fuelling our bodies. Eating is also a social activity, a way of expressing your identity, a cultural experience, and a pleasurable one. And people have been managing to eat without professional help for years and years, maybe we could too. So his new book talks about how to eat without professional help and without freaking out about every single food purchase you make. In fact, the cover of the book gives away the trick to this unnaturally difficult objective, neatly wrapped around a head of lettuce:


The trick is defining what ‘food’ actually is, and a whole lot of the things you’ll find in a grocery store don’t qualify. Evidently 14 pages of the book are devoted to this definition. The book also offers simple tips for choosing what to eat, some of which he shared with us, like ‘don’t buy anything your great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food’ and ‘don’t buy anything that claims to be healthy’ (also known as ‘don’t be fooled by the silence of the yams.’) I think the book also discusses some of the other challenges involved in eating, like the fact that real food generally requires cooking, and that doesn’t go over so well with some people. I thought the book sounded pretty interesting, so I went home and ordered it – I should’ve just bought it there, but I have a sexy vampire series to finish first anyway – but I’ll be sure to share my thoughts when I finally read it. Until then, I’ll be bracing myself for the possibility of giving up some of my favorite processed food addictions.

Bitter or Sweet?
February 13, 2008, 2:55 pm
Filed under: Food, Neat Stuff | Tags: ,

In preparation for Valentine’s day, here are some fun candy heart spin-offs available to help you really go all out, whether in favor of or against the general idea of the holiday.

For serious Valentine enthusiasts, you can express that enthusiasm with Sweethearts Candy Cologne. When giving away little boxes of candy hearts just isn’t enough, take it a step further and smell like them too.


If, on the other hand, you’re feeling more like a Valentine’s grinch, the thing for you might be Bittersweets– cute little candy hearts, minus the happy little messages of affection and love. Instead, there are 3 collections, Dejected, Dysfunctional, and Dumped, with 37 unique sayings each of sadness, aloneness and despair. The good news is the candies are still tasty and they come in cute little reusable tins.


Of course if you really want something extraordinary for Valentine’s Day, I suggest you try this.

Especially for Kate
February 12, 2008, 12:26 pm
Filed under: Entertainment, Food | Tags:


(Thanks for sending this to me Ari, you rock!)

January 28, 2008, 7:28 pm
Filed under: Athletic, Dancing, Design, Entertainment, Food, Music, Neat Stuff, Random, Travel

So I’m starting up a blog and I think it’s going to be about a lot of very random stuff. So just to get things started, I’m throwing together a quick sampler of the types of entries you might encounter as my blog continues….

Travel – I figure most trips I take will be worthy of at least a little blip in my blog, but I’ll try to keep things light, focusing mainly on the highlights. For instance, if I were to recap the visits to Iowa that I took last October, it might look something like this:

Had to go to Iowa for work over and over again. The first trip was slightly novel, but even that wore off pretty quickly. I have decided that I hate Northwest Airlines (cranky personnel, evil seating system that makes you sit in the back of the plane unless you join their little club, and no entertainment whatsoever on board. Grrr, I hate them). Almost no food in Iowa is really worth mentioning, but our hotel somehow managed to have this amazing chocolate cake with a molten center that comes with Haagen-Dazs ice cream, a big pile of whipped cream, and a small tureen of hot fudge. That cake may have been the highlight of the entire series of trips. The business stuff was okay, although it got a little repetitive by the fourth trip, and the real climax was on trip number three when Northwest sent my luggage to the wrong airport under someone else’s name. By the end of that week I was so frazzled that I almost burst into tears when I went to my local wireless store and found out that they no longer carry chargers for my cell phone (which was needed to replace the one still lost in my luggage, of course). And for some reason being in Iowa made me want to drink Coke all the time, which I almost never drink at home. It was a bizarre time…

Athletic Stuff – I tend to be always working toward some type of athletic something-or-other, so odds are it will come up from time to time. As for specific events you might hear about this year, I’m hoping to run the Vancouver Half Marathon in early may, I’m signed up for the Ragnar Northwest Passage Relay in July, and also for Cascade Bicycle Club’s RSVP in August. And I really hope I manage to squeeze in a triathlon this summer too.

Dancing – I don’t know how often this will come up, but I am in a swing dance performance troupe, so there’s bound to be an announcement or something whenever we have performances (expect to see us at Folklife in May!). Plus I might occasionally be inclined to rave about a particularly excellent night out dancing, like two weeks ago when a friend from the troupe persuaded me to go dancing at the Highliner, a gritty little dive bar at the fisherman’s terminal. I got to dance with super great dancers (including of course Mike, the troupe guy, who is a blast to dance with), and I had this one amazing dance with a random guy I had never danced with before named Steve, who I think may have been my dancing soul mate. It was awesome.

(if you’re curious about my troupe, it’s the Savoy Swing Club Performance Troupe)

Neat Stuff – One of the hazards of being a designer is finding really cool stuff that you really really want to have and then discovering how ridiculously expensive it is. A good example of this is the Selk Bag. It’s a sleeping bag with arms and legs and a big hood, so you can get up and frolic in the middle of the night without giving up the happy cozy warmth of your bedding, plus you get to look like a giant teddy bear. While recognizing that the practicality of this item is nearly nonexistent, I seriously want one. I actually think the cost may have come down since I first discovered this brilliant product, so don’t be shocked if you see a giant teddy bear-ish figure frolicking in the middle of the night.


(the designer’s website)

Music – Every once in a while I get pretty excited about some new song I’ve discovered or an awesome playlist I’ve just put together. I expect this enthusiasm will eventually spill over onto my blog.

Entertainment – Sometimes there are just entertaining things in the world which simply must be shared. For instance, I found this video on the blog of a boy I like and it made me like him even more:

(there might be a lot of copying fun things from other people in this category)

Food – I get pretty excited about really good food (or drinks), especially ice cream. In this category you might see raves about super delicious things I’ve discovered lately (like Margaret’s homeade apricot pistachio ice cream last night, where the apricot flavor permeated the ice cream in a truly amazing way) or rants about food gone wrong, like how it seems nearly every restaurant makes chocolate milkshakes with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup and it’s just wrong. Vanilla has no place in a chocolate milkshake and in my opinion the only way to properly make a chocolate milkshake is from chocolate ice cream (I personally choose Ultra Chocolate, made by Double Rainbow and sold at Trader Joes)

Random – I’m sure other nonsense will find its way into my blog as well, like updates on my exciting effort to knit a scarf and testing out the ‘world’s best paper airplane’ according to the dangerous book for boys.

Stay tuned!