The psychology of eating | small behavioural changes add up to big results

I am a student of the human brain. Honestly, I love learning about what goes on inside my own head, especially when I’m not even aware there’s anything happening :-)

Humans are exposed to hundreds of thousands of pieces of information about their surroundings each and every day. Even though we pick up on fewer than 5% of them (okay, if we’re really observant, perhaps it’s as high as 10%…), they’re all processed by the brain and together, effect the way we behave and the choices that we make.

psychology of eating

Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to food.

Last week, my husband (who’s also a student of the human brain) dropped a journal article on my desk. He knew I’d be fascinated and (unlike most of the articles he shares with me), due to the topic, would actually read it.

“Easy as pie”** is a review paper written by psychologist Brian Wansink (the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab).

It describes the fascinating results of a number of studies linking dining behaviours with over-eating. He argues that by making subtle changes in our surroundings, we need no longer rely on willpower to keep us from mindless eating.

And that learning a bit about the psychology of eating may result, over time, in big changes in behaviour and weight.

His philosophies about weight loss, weight loss maintenance and habit formation echo my own;

My favourite actionable items from the post?

  • Simply serving food on plates that contrast in colour with your food can reduce calorie consumption by up to 18%; apparently white food gets lost on white plates and our brains have difficulty determining how much is actually there. Creating more visual contrast highlights portion size and results in us eating less!
  • Women who store packaged foods (especially breakfast cereals and potato chips) behind closed doors weigh (on average) 9.5 kilograms less than those who leave them on the counter top; out of sight definitely means out of mind when it comes to food. Turn this subconscious behaviour to your advantage by leaving a bowl of fruits and veggies out, in plain sight.
  • Families whose meals are served from the stove or counter eat 19% fewer calories than those serving themselves at the table; when we have to walk to the kitchen for a second helping, most of us don’t (which is great for ‘calories in’, but rather sad when you realize it reflects our general attitude about daily movement…). As a corollary, the author suggests that serving salad at the table is a great way to increase your intake of greens.
  • Big plates result in bigger portions. Same thing goes for serving spoons, especially when food is served ‘family style’ at the dinner table; purchasing smaller dinner plates (25-cm rather than the standard 30-cm) will not only shrink your waistline, it’ll also shrink your grocery bill.
  • People pour 12% less liquid into tall, thin glasses than they do into short, squat glasses. (Bartenders do this too, so if you’re looking to score a larger drink at the bar, ask for a tumbler rather than a highball glass ;-) ); Why? People tend to focus on the height of the glass when pouring, rather than its width. Want to reduce your serving size by another 12%? Either pour standing, or place your glass on the table; looking down at a glass makes it appear fuller so we stop pouring sooner.

I love that none of the above suggestions require any exertion of willpower at meal time. Just committing to a different way of storing and serving the foods you already eat. I’m always happy for an excuse to purchase new tableware!

Did you know about any of the above patterns?

Which of the above will you put into practice today?

** You can find the entire article in the January 10-16th, 2015, issue of NewScientist magazine. Volume 225 No. 3003.

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