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What Really Determines What We Eat
The Hidden Truth

by Brian Wansink, PhD

Most of us believe that how much we eat is mainly determined by how hungry we are, how much we like the food, or what mood we are in at the time of eating or food selection. While we might acknowledge that others could be influenced by colorful food packages, special lighting, or the size of the plate, we all think we are too smart to be swayed by such gimmicks. But that’s where we’re wrong.

Every single one of us eats what and how much we eat not because of hunger but largely because of what is around us. We eat the way we do because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers. Dozens of studies confirm this, yet most of us remain unaware of the power of these influences.

That is what makes them so dangerous. We are almost never aware of why we’re eating particular foods or eating them in larger amounts than we may really desire. But by knowing what to look out for, we can head off overeating before we start. This article explores some of the hidden influences that can trip up anyone’s eating habits.

Size matters
The size of a serving bowl can’t possibly influence how much an intelligent, informed person eats, can it? A study conducted at the University of Illinois suggests that it can.

A group of graduate students in a very competitive MBA program at the University of Illinois were brought together and lectured for more than an hour about how bigger bowls could cause them to eat more than they otherwise would. Six weeks later, 40 of them were invited to a Super Bowl party at a sports bar. While they knew they were there as part of a study, they thought the study was related to commercials broadcast during the Super Bowl.

When the students entered the party locale, they were divided equally into two separate rooms. In one room, the group was presented with two four-quart bowls of Chex Mix and offered a snack. Each person was given a plate and told to take as much as he wanted. Each plate was then weighed on a hidden scale, and the student continued on to the Super Bowl party.

In the other room, the same amount of Chex Mix was served in four two-quart bowls. The same thing happened: The students served themselves snacks, and the snack plates were weighed without their knowledge.

The bowls of food were then removed so that no one could take a second helping, and an hour later the researchers collected the plates to see how much had been eaten. They found that the people who had served themselves out of the four-quart bowls took 55% more Chex Mix than those who served themselves out of the two-quart bowls.

However, when the students were informed of this, most did not believe it. A typical response was along the lines of, “Not me. Maybe it happens to other people, but certainly not me.” A write-up of this study was published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in April 2005.

While eating a big portion of Chex Mix may be understandable since it tastes so good, it’s harder to believe that a big container would lead people to eat more of a food they didn’t like, but it does. This was demonstrated in a study conducted in a movie theater in a suburb of Chicago. A group of people who had come to watch the movie Payback, starring Mel Gibson, were offered free popcorn and a free drink if they would agree to answer some questions about the concessions and about the movie after the movie ended. As a pretext for the study, the researchers told the subjects, “It is Illinois History Month and so, because of this fact, we are raising awareness.”

Each person was given either a large bucket of popcorn, weighing about 120 grams, or an extra-large bucket, weighing about twice that much. Half the people were given fresh popcorn that had just been popped that day, and the other half were given popcorn that was 14 days old and, by most standards, tasted terrible.

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