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!