Are You Sure You Want to Eat That? The secret role of subtle cues in one’s daily life can lead to overeating, even distasteful foods!

From the Sesame Street puppets to the First Lady’s campaign, adults and children alike are being educated about the importance of healthful eating. Supermarkets have filled their shelves with all-natural, fat-free and no-sugar-added products, as more people are switching to low-calorie diets. However, obesity-related diseases have become one of the main causes of deaths in the U.S. today. Referred to as the American Obesity Paradox, this phenomenon describes the parallel increase in both obesity rates and in customer’ demand for low-calorie foods. This puzzling contradiction has gained significant interest over the past decades, including mine.  These, are some of my favorite studies, and findings that have inspired our research….

In an interesting series of studies, Dr. Brian Wansink and his colleagues have shown that much of our food choices do not depend on hunger, or even taste, but on external cues in our environment. Portion size, plate size, time of day and the presence or absence of company, are only some of the key factors, which influence whether one will overeat.

A study conducted by Cornell University showed, that snacks’ package size are a stronger predictor of consumption, than the foods’ taste and quality. Randomly selected moviegoers received either a free medium or large bucket, of fresh or stale popcorn. The results demonstrated that the viewers who received a large container of fresh popcorn ate 45.3% more. Surprisingly, even moviegoers that received the large bucket of stale popcorn, and described its taste as “horrible”, still ate 36% more!

This happens because we generally rely on “rules of thumbs” to judge when we have eaten enough, not on feedback from our body. For example, if one is used to feeling satisfied after eating half of his plate, when served a larger portion, he will still consume about half of the bigger dish. These habits lead people to unconsciously overeat, especially when it comes to small foods, or snacks in “family-size” containers.On a brighter side, large containers do not necessarily lead to overweight and obesity. By filling large bowls with fresh fruits and veggies, and using smaller plates for snacks or candies, people can effortlessly establish healthier eating habits.

A second diet-breaker, the “health halo” effect, refers to shoppers’ tendencies to assign to products with stated nutrition claim, for example, “no trans-fats,” additional healthful qualities such as, “low-calorie”. This faulty association has been used by researchers to explain the American Obesity Paradox. A study showed that when choosing between 2 identical dishes from 2 different restaurants, people assigned significantly fewer calories to the healthy restaurant’s foods. For example, on average, a Subway meal is believed to have 151 fewer calories than the same-caloric sandwich made at McDonald’s. Unfortunately, such biases often lead us to over-consume at restaurants, as we are prone to wrongfully associate the low-calorie section’s dishes, with other items on the menu. Luckily, educating people on how to judge between food alternatives, as well as learning common healthful and unhealthful side dishes, greatly reduces the chances of this error.

The theory of cognitive dissonance refers to people’s need to think, feel and behave consistently. Based this theory people on who consider themselves healthy eaters, will choose nutritious, over tasty foods, when reminded of the importance of healthful eating. However, as implied from the American Obesity Paradox, there is a discrepancy between the thoughts of self-reported healthy eaters and their actual food choices. Restaurant orders provide great examples of the influence of cognitive dissonance on food choices. A study from the University of Washington found that when clients can choose between a tastier, and a relatively, more healthful dessert, they will pick the healthier option. However, if each desert is present separately people mostly order the more flavorful cake. This happens because when we have only one alternative, we can easily justify sacrificing our future health for the immediate pleasure of a slice of a seven-layer-death-by-chocolate cake. However, when asked to choose between different options, we are motivated to order the dish, whose qualities best reflect our values.

A Canadian study found that the motivational power of cognitive dissonance is lessened, when people are presented with products, which contain labels indicating both healthy and tasty qualities, such as wholegrain chocolate chip cookies. Under such instances, even strict dieters tend to overeat, because the healthful aspect of the food is used to justify the choice.

As upsetting as these results may sound, their results can be used to promote healthier eating habits. For example, package sizes can be used to establish healthy habits, and cognitive dissonance (in moderate doses) can motivate people to maintain them.  Recognizing some of external factors,that influences our food choices, can lead us towards a healthier and happier society.