Think before you eat

February 26, 2013 — Leave a comment

We may be eating in unhealthy ways without realizing it. Even healthy foods can lead to problems in certain people – for example dairy products in people who are allergic to them or wheat in people who have celiac disease. But even if food does not cause a bad reaction in us, there is research evidence that we are not in as much control of what we are eating as we think we are.

The first problem is that we often eat without thinking. Dr. Brian Wansink at Cornell University has done some fascinating experiments (which he writes about in his book, Mindless Eating) that look at why we eat more than we think. In one experiment he had people eat bowls of soup while he watched them using hidden cameras. For some people, more soup was piped into the bowl (without them knowing it) as they were eating – it was a bottomless bowl. These people ate more soup than those who had a regular bowl. Similarly, he has shown in experiments that people will eat less food if they use a smaller plate. In yet another experiment, he went to a movie theatre where a first-run movie was playing just after lunch on a Saturday. He prepared popcorn in advance and made sure it was really stale but still safe to eat. He offered each person who bought a ticket a free soft drink and a bucket of popcorn (some buckets were medium in size and some were large but all were too big to finish). People who got the large containers, ate more popcorn (even though it was stale). He surveyed people when they were leaving the theatre and most people who had the large buckets said that they would not be fooled into eating more popcorn by a larger bucket.

The second problem is that the companies that make our foods are adding ingredients and using psychology to make us eat more. David Kessler, MD, the former commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes in his book, The End of Overeating, that Americans started gaining weight in the 1980s which he says is related to the practices of food companies. He writes about research that shows that eating more sugar, fat and salt makes us want to eat more sugar, fat and salt. By adding more of these ingredients to our food, the food industry has trained us to eat more.

An article in the NY Times Magazine on February 24 entitled The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food makes a similar point. The author, Michael Moss, discusses how food companies deliberately add sugar, fat and salt to food. They also use psychology, advertising and marketing techniques and their knowledge about addictions to get us to eat more of their products. The busier we get, the more attractive packaged foods become and the more likely we are to eat unhealthy foods and gain weight.

Hopefully, food companies will start to use what they know about psychology and marketing to get us to eat more healthy foods. Until then, we can think before we eat, use smaller plates and read food labels before buying packaged foods. It is amazing how many seemingly healthy foods like tomato sauce, have sugar as one of their main ingredients.

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