Unfortunately for those of us trying to lose that little bit extra, our environment isn’t always conducive to weight loss. We live with an illusion of control when it comes to our eating habits, because we have no idea how subtle environmental cues change how we behave.
Here are some elements that play a role in our eating habits:
Changing the name of a dessert from “Chocolate cake” to “Belgian Black Forest Cake” increased its sale by 27 percent.
Swapping out the label on a cheap, $2 bottle of Cabernet and replacing it with a fake one from California made people rate the wine, the restaurant, and the food served as better than when it was replaced with a fake label from North Dakota.
Presenting a brownie on a very nice piece of china instead of a paper napkin makes you rate it as better tasting, and triples how much you’re willing to pay for it.
But these are all presentation gimmicks. These things might influence you a bit but as long as you pay attention to your feelings of satiety, you’ll be fine. Right?
What happens if your plate never empties? Do you rely on an external cue (how much soup is left in the bowl) or do you rely on an internal cue (how full you feel) to dictate how much you eat?
Subjects who ate soup out of a bowl that refilled without their knowledge ate 73 percent more soup when compared to the control group who ate out of regular bowls. This even applies to plate size. If your plate is bigger, you’ll eat more than if your plate is smaller.
Inevitably, when faced with psychology research of some type or another, the common refrain is, “Whatever, that wouldn’t work on me now that I know about it.”
Sorry, still wrong.
Knowing about the cue doesn’t change its impact.
Students who went through a 90 minute lecture explaining that a larger bowl would make them eat more, then having a study group laying out steps to avoid it, STILL ate 53 percent more when presented with the larger bowl 6 weeks later.
“Healthy” foods aren’t immune to external cues either.
Think that eating “low-fat” or “low-calorie” is a safer option?
When presented with food labeled as either of the above, people ate them in larger quantities because they consistently underestimate the amount of calories per serving when compared to a regular option.
When subjects think they’re eating a “healthier” option, it has a halo effect on the rest of the meal. Side orders of chips or extra toppings are perceived to be of better quality and a better choice then they would be normally.
The impact of exercise
Interestingly enough, when it comes to the influence of exercise on the amount we eat, the results are mixed. When subjects were primed to think about exercise, they ate less than people who weren’t primed, even though they didn’t do any.
Conversely, when two groups were taken out for a walk and one group was told it was for exercise and the other was told it was just scenic, the exercise group ended up eating more dessert at dinner afterwards.
Why it matters
It’s important to recognize that our choices are more heavily influenced by external cues then we think. However, that isn’t a reason to assume that we don’t have control over our habits.
The “trick” to changing our behavior isn’t just to uncover external cues. Even if we do, we’ll still fall victim to them.
The solution is to leverage external cues to our benefit.
Set portion size before eating. Breakfast is 4 eggs. Post training is the previously prepared tupperware. Dinner is 2 steak packs and a sweet potato. Establish portion sizes and stick to them.
Facilitate good choices. Keep healthy food options in plain view and you’ll be more likely to choose those. Don’t stock up on items that are easy to gorge on and bad for you, like cookies and ice cream.
Think about your Fran Time: Remember that what you eat is going to affect your performance. Food is fuel, the better the fuel, the better the results.
Presentation is everything: If all else fails, use smaller dishware. Subjects always overeat when food is presented in larger plates and bowls.
Far from sight.. Accessibility plays a huge role in our eating habits. Having a bowl of candy within arm’s reach will make you more likely to eat from it. Putting it 6 feet away is enough to reduce intake. Applied at home, people will eat more from a serving dish left on the table within easy reach then from the same dish left a few feet away.
Make it easier to lose weight, by making it harder to be prompted by external cues. Forget trying to do it via willpower alone, leverage your environment.
How external cues make us overeat. Interview with Brian Wansink Here