Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Food Psychology.

I subscribe to Men's Health. Yes, I may have succumb to a ritual unfathomable to those who know me, but behind the 60-second chiseled-ab workouts and desultory arguments about the male sex, there's some sentient words of wisdom every now and then.

One of those sentients was an article by writer Jim Thorton on the science behind why we eat so much.

Too Much On Your Plate?
Modern food science explains why you just can't stop eating
By: Jim Thornton


The moment I hear Law & Order's distinctive two-beat intro, my salivary glands flood. I watch this week's corpse discovery, then take the first commercial break to hustle out to the Sub-Zero.

Two huge scoops of Vanilla Swiss Almond Häagen-Dazs in an oversize bowl later, I'm back in the company of police who investigate crime and the district attorneys who prosecute the offenders. Over the next 15 minutes, those voluptuous mounds of ice cream, along with their bustier of chocolate sauce and Reddi-wip, disappear someplace.

Under cross-examination by Jack McCoy, I could probably be witness-badgered into specifying where this someplace is. Right now, however, I'm too distracted to remember or care.

Another commercial comes on, and I feel a sudden vague sense that my life needs balance. Something crunchy, perhaps something with salt. Oh, and add something that will make this first combo of somethings easier to swallow.

By the time the jury finds the perp-o'-the-week guilty, an 8-inch stack of Zesta saltines and a 16-ounce Coke have slurried off together, crunch by crunch, sip by sip, in search of the missing Häagen-Dazs.

Most men think, if we think about it at all, that the urge to eat is simple. We become hungry, we seek food, we shovel same into our maws, we feel full, we stop. After a suitable interlude, the cycle starts anew.

But hunger (appetite's physiological accelerator) and satiety (its brakes) are not the only reasons we start and stop eating. Researchers in the burgeoning field of food psychology have pinpointed a complex web of cues in the modern environment that all but overwhelm our once-adaptive systems: societal shifts in what constitutes appropriate portion sizes; the colors, embedded scents, and promotional language used in food packaging; the distracting effects of TV viewing during meals. These are just a few of the ubiquitous hidden persuaders that have converted eating from a natural human need into a national hobby.

Part of the problem is the sheer number of times we're confronted with food decisions. According to a University of Illinois study, the average American makes more than 200 choices each day, most executed on a quasi-conscious level. Yogurt or a sticky bun for breakfast? A garden salad or Double Whopper for lunch? Celery sticks or pork rinds with a pilsner or pale ale after work?

Psychologists in labs around the world, to be sure, have an interest in understanding what motivates such decisions -- and perhaps nowhere more so than in the labs at major food corporations. Whether it's Frito-Lay or Burger King, Dannon or Pillsbury, they're all in business to optimize profits. If tweaking the minutiae of consumer psychology will make their products more tempting than the competition's, you can bet they'll do so.

"Nowadays, companies are investing a lot of money to figure out this kind of information," says Leslie Harrington, Ph.D., founder of LH Color, a Connecticut-based company that advises food manufacturers on ways to leverage color's psychological effects. "You can't change behavior by cognition alone," she says. "You need to engage a consumer's emotions, and color is just one of many ways to do this."

University and government researchers, for their part, approach food psychology from a different perspective. Most here are seeking strategies to steer us--willingly, that is--toward healthier diets, hoping in the process to not only save lives but also avoid a fortune in future medical costs from today's obesity epidemic.

For Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Cornell University food and brand lab, part of the answer lies in a "know the enemy" approach. In his book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Wansink condenses years of research into practical lessons for recognizing--and circumventing--the myriad influences that promote autopilot eating. "The goal," he says, "is to re-engineer your food life so you can enjoy eating without obsessing."

This doesn't just mean eating less junk. The same techniques that push Ho Hos and Häagen-Dazs can also help us eat better-quality fare, from five-a-day fruits and vegetables to soluble fiber and omega-3 fats. By better understanding how food psychology influences us, we can avoid being blinded by a false glow, and simultaneously add more luster to the foods our bodies really need.

The Atmospherics of Appetite

Though it doesn't appear on a list of ingredients, one of a food's most seductive additives is the setting in which it's served.

Restaurateurs from McDonald's to Ruth's Chris Steak House have long understood how critical ambience is to sales. Not surprisingly, the choice of atmosphere will differ dramatically, depending on how an establishment wants to make those sales. In the case of fast-food emporia, profits depend on speed eating, whereas at high-end restaurants, the goal is to keep diners ensconced long enough to "up-sell" them drinks, appetizers, and desserts.

One of the most common techniques used to achieve both ends is color. "Bright red, for example, is the color to stimulate your appetite," says color expert Harrington. "It also increases adrenaline and blood pressure and makes you physically want to move." It's no accident that the benches at every McDonald's are not only bright red but also bruisingly hard on the buttocks. The last thing you want en route to selling 80 billion burgers are loitering customers.

Contrast this approach with a high-end steak house. Managers here want you ravenous, too--but they also want you to linger long enough to run up a drink tab and other expenses. "These places still use red to stimulate appetite," says Harrington, "but they tone it down to a softer burgundy or wine color." The soft seating here could be endorsed by post-op hemorrhoid patients.

To further encourage leisurely dining, upscale restaurants also frequently use muted lights and soothing music. Of course, you'll never find candelabra and Chopin anywhere near a bucket of chicken. If such places can't lure clientele onto the drive-thru conveyer belt, they'll at least make their interiors as energizing to the senses as possible.

For reasons that aren't completely understood, men seem particularly vulnerable to such manipulations. "Bright lights, loud noises, and reflective surfaces cause most everyone to eat faster," says Lenny R. Vartanian, Ph.D., lead author of a recent study in Appetite that examined factors influencing food consumption. "But environmental stimulation causes men to really speed up their eating -- it has a much more exaggerated influence."

Another highly provocative sense is smell. A mere whiff of something delicious increases salivation and the release of pancreatic enzymes, readying our bodies to be fed. Wansink has dubbed this the "Cinnabon Effect" after an aroma credited with generating $200 million in annual sticky-bun sales.

"I've been in food courts where it seems like restaurants are battling," says Armand V. Cardello, Ph.D., a food psychologist at the U.S. Army Natick Labs. "Every 5 feet you walk, you're hit with a different smell."

Short of wearing nose clips, earplugs, and welder's glasses when dining out, there's not much we can do to eliminate this assault on our senses. Still, knowing what we're up against can move such marketing ploys from unconsciousness to awareness, where we have at least a fighting chance of resisting or avoiding them.

At home, where we do have some control over our eating environment, we can use these same marketing strategies to our benefit. For example, "even broccoli tastes better by candlelight," says Wansink. He recommends a few guy-specific tactics, as well. For at least 30 minutes of your meal, turn off the TV and instead play your favorite slow music softly in the background. Use decent china, which sends the message "fine dining ahead!" as opposed to plastic plates and bowls, which proclaim "time to spork down some biomass." Perhaps most important, serve food at a table where you've previously enjoyed celebratory meals -- not on a TV tray where you've previously celebrated sports victories.

If your goal is simply to eat less, try a more radical approach to ambience. "Blue is the color most associated with mold and decay in food," says Harrington. "The greatest diet tip I know is simply to put a blue lightbulb in your refrigerator."

Tricks of the Eye

Wansink passes me a liter of Sprite and two glasses, one tall and skinny, the other short and stout. We're sitting at a mahogany table inside the Cornell food and brand lab, which has been configured today to resemble a high-end kitchen. Depending on the demands of a given experiment, the same space can easily be converted into a dining room or home theater-style sports bar.

I know what Wansink is up to when he asks me to pour a standard shot of Sprite into these two different-size glasses. On the plane ride to Ithaca, I read his 2005 study in the British Medical Journal, in which he convincingly demonstrated the effects of so-called elongation bias in the pouring and consumption of alcohol.

As research dating back to the 1960s shows, people have a strong tendency to focus on height rather than width when assessing a container's volume. In the British Medical Journal study, college students tried to pour equal amounts of alcohol into two types of glasses -- tall and narrow, and short and fat -- but ended up adding 30 percent more to the squat tumblers. Wansink next studied 86 pro bartenders in Philadelphia, people with an average work experience of 6.3 years. They did only slightly better -- overpouring by an average of 20.5 percent.

Armed with this info, I feel like a mark who's become wise to the con. I grab the Sprite bottle and take my time, trickling what I am convinced is exactly one shot into each glass. When Wansink measures the respective amounts, he smiles.

"You poured 1.7 ounces into the tall container, and 2.1 ounces into the short one," he says, adding that at least I was closer to the bartenders than the students.

"But I knew the trick," I reply.

"It doesn't matter," he says. "We're all tricked by our environment, even when we 'know it.' That's why it's easier to change our environment than our minds."

The sizes of plates, bowls, mugs, candy dishes, and snack bowls have equally powerful effects on our perception and consumption patterns. The larger the container, the smaller we invariably consider the portion contained within, which just as invariably leads to overeating.

Unfortunately, research shows that dinnerware and serving sizes have continued to grow in tandem over the past 20 years. The standard dinner plate at restaurants now averages 12 inches, up from 9 inches in the '70s. As a result, portion sizes are twice as large.

What's driving this trend toward gigantism in dinnerware is a bit hard to fathom. "Doesn't it cost restaurants more to fill up larger plates?" I ask Wansink. "Who exactly benefits from this?"

He chuckles. "Nobody seems to benefit, but once 'plate escalation' starts, it takes on a life of its own." Restaurateurs who don't keep up are scared customers will feel ripped off and go elsewhere.

But Wansink thinks their fears are unfounded. After numerous studies of food portions and container size, he's concluded that we're just as satisfied by what looks like the right amount on a small plate as we are by the much larger portion that "looks right" on a larger one.

"When I first realized what an impact container size has on how much we eat," Wansink says, "I went home and made some changes." Among other things, he replaced his family's 12-inch dinner plates with an assortment of 9 to 10-inch plates he found at a garage sale, as well as new ones sold as "salad plates."

He also replaced his short, wide glasses with tall, skinny ones. He even eliminated his squat wine goblets and glasses, keeping only the champagne flutes. "Since I've been doing this research and made these changes at home," he says, "I've probably lost close to 20 pounds. All of a sudden you wake up and realize your clothes are too big."

Eating by Association

Long before he conditioned dogs to drool at the ring of a bell, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov serendipitously discovered his lab coat could accomplish the same result. In the late 19th century, Pavlov was primarily interested in the purely digestive properties of saliva. He collected the substance every day at feeding time, when the sight and smell of kibble made the mutts' mouths water. Eventually, he noticed the dogs salivating even when he approached them without food--provided, that is, he was wearing the same lab coat he always donned at feeding time.

For most of us, a white lab coat is more likely to spike blood pressure than appetite. Nevertheless, we all proceed through life surrounded by environmental stimuli that condition our own patterns of eating behavior through association. In my case, for instance, the link between late-night TV and snacking is now so ingrained that simply turning the set on after dark makes me hungry.

Food psychologists call such habitual routines "eating scripts" and say they exert potent effects on our consumption. "Eating scripts are the icebergs of our diets," says Wansink. "We're clearly aware of some of them, but many more lurk beneath the surface of our daily activities."

For example, yesteryear's three square meals eaten with family at a sane pace at the supper table has become the stuff of museum dioramas. As our jobs have become progressively more fast paced, new scripts have emerged that seem, at least, more conducive to the hurried, multiprocessing, obsessive goal orientation so many men feel driven by.

More often than not, we either skip daytime meals entirely or relegate them to "refuel as quickly as possible" status. In fact, nearly one-third of men, compared with slightly less than one-quarter of women, admit to eating fast food regularly. No wonder Burger King's latest ad campaign touts its Texas Double Whopper as an antidote to "chick food," urging us guys to rise up and "eat like a man, man!"

The problem is, the manly way is a recipe for weight gain. A 2006 study by researchers at Brown medical school is just one of dozens in recent years linking obesity to the modern combo of a.m. fasting and p.m. overeating. Specifically, the researchers found that two common behaviors -- skipping breakfast and consuming more fast food--strongly predicted excess weight in young men.

Breaking the dine-and-dash habit and/or other dysfunctional eating scripts requires first recognizing your triggers and then rescripting your behavior. Next week, for instance, resolve to take a different route to and from work, one that steers you around the Scylla and Charybdis of fast-food alley. At the same time, brown-bag a filling, healthy lunch: Leftover chicken breast with a baked sweet potato, tuna salad with Triscuits, a turkey wrap with cranberry relish -- they'll satisfy and help you dodge the drive-thru.

Experiment until you find new patterns you can live with. Some men have success with an interception strategy: It's fine to grab a doughnut at the office, but only after you first have a piece of fruit or a stick of gum and then reassess how much you still crave the doughnut. Another tactic: Eliminate as many distractions as you can so you concentrate on your food. If you want to eat at your desk or in the car, fine -- but turn off the computer or radio when you do so. Chances are you'll eat less when you pay full attention to the ingestion process.

Engorged at the Smorgasbord

When it comes to triggering a guy's gorge reflex, variety in food is a surprisingly powerful force. Food psychologist Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., and her colleagues at Penn State University quantified this phenomenon with a substance few men ever approach with passion: yogurt. Despite its bland status, when unwitting volunteers were offered a choice of three yogurt flavors, they ate 20 percent more of it than when offered one flavor alone.

The lure of different taste sensations is not the only reason our stomachs so regularly fantasize about a gustatory ménage à trois, if not an outright cornucopian orgy. We're also, it turns out, suckers for pure visual variety in what we eat, a fact that M&M's pioneer Forrest E. Mars Sr. stumbled on back in the 1940s, to his company's everlasting success.

"A number of years ago, Mars tweaked the colors of M&M's a bit," says Harrington. "It added blue, made the red a little redder, and so forth." In the course of this color testing, a fascinating finding emerged. Even though taste testers were told that the colorings had no flavor, and that each individual M came from the same recipe as every other M, the volunteers refused to believe this. "They would swear on their life," says Harrington, "that the M&M's tasted different depending on the color."

Such is the connection between palette and palate that we should consider ourselves lucky Mars hasn't tempted us with dozens of colors. In a 2004 study in the Journal of Consumer Research, college students were given either a huge bowl of M&M's containing seven colors or a bowl filled with three additional hues. Those receiving seven colors ate, on average, 56 M&M's; those with 10 colors averaged 99 -- 77 percent more than the others.

The scientific name for this phenomenon is sensory-specific satiety, and it seems hardwired into our food-seeking physiology. "Nobody likes a monotonous diet," says Cardello. "If you're forced to eat a particular flavor for an extended period of time, your liking of that flavor will decrease." Cardello and his colleagues have made use of this tendency to help soldiers eat more in the field. Over the past 15 years, military rations have evolved from a limited variety of choices to more than 24 different entrée combinations.

Alas, for those trying to shed a few pounds or even just maintain their weight, the variety of food choices can seem inescapable. Try to limit, if not eliminate entirely, visits to smorgasbords, breakfast buffets, food courts, Korean delis, and similar settings that lay out gastronomical porn. Very few of us will order more than one dessert at a traditional sit-down eatery. At Old Country Buffet, on the other hand, who among us can resist grabbing carrot cake, a soft-serve sundae, and a brownie -- that is, on our first trip to the dessert aisle?

When you do find yourself at a food fest, be it a friend's gourmet dinner party or a business buffet, limit yourself to two items on your plate at a time. You can always go back for more, says Wansink, but establishing a buffer zone between choices will dim their allure, making it easier to control yourself.

The Language of Food Love

Anthropologist Margaret Mead, best known for her theories on free love in Samoa, made a more pragmatic, albeit less publicized, contribution to Depression-era America: convincing our ancestors to eat more organ meats, from cow hearts to hog brains to sheep kidneys. Most citizens back then found such fare disgusting. Unfortunately, the vast majority of normal meat was being shipped overseas to sustain the soldiers fighting in WWII.

Fearing widespread protein deprivation here at home, the Department of Defense recruited Mead and other leading scientists to help the public make the best of a revolting situation. Numerous strategies emerged, but Mead's was one of the most effective: a name change from "organ meats" to "variety meats."

This is hardly a flukish example. Consider the fate of the Patagonian toothfish. Despite the fact that this is neither a bass nor exclusive to Chile, its rechristening as "Chilean sea bass" triggered such a feeding frenzy in trendy diners that the species is now near extinction.

Army rations once dubbed "chicken and gravy" today sport more inviting labels, such as "chicken francesca," says Cardello. "Of course, you see this all the time in restaurants, where they come up with elaborate names for regular food items. Somehow, when we read these names, our expectations become that much higher for the products--and we end up believing they taste better."

Wansink has found that four specific forms of language are used frequently because of their ability to evoke our emotions and stoke our desires. First, linking specific foods to the geographical regions famous for their production: Omaha steaks, Maine lobsters, New Orleans Cajun gumbo, and the like. Second, nostalgic labels--Toll House cookies, Grandma's Old World manicotti--trigger associations with family, tradition, and comfort.

A glowing description of great taste is the third common tactic, and it can make our mouths water and stomachs growl as effectively as actual food. From "tender, mesquite-smoked pork loin" to "velvety lemon crème pie," just thinking about food is enough for our imaginations to bring it to life.

The fourth technique is using brand labels -- Jack Daniel's Glazed Ribs, say, or Butterfinger Blizzards. After all, the original producers of these products have established emotional connections between their food and consumers -- why walk when you can piggyback a ride?

Fortunately, as with other appetite manipulators, you can fight back by simply remaining conscious of the hype that surrounds us, knowing that sea bass and toothfish are one and the same. Sometimes reading the fine print can help, as well. "Milk chocolate (sugar, cocoa butter, chocolate, skim milk, lactose, milk fat, soy lecithin, artificial flavor), peanuts, corn syrup, sugar, milk fat, skim milk, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, lactose, salt, egg whites, chocolate, artificial flavor" is less seductive than "Snickers bar."

At home, recruit your significant other to help turn language to your advantage by using the "two-word" technique. Simply append a couple of enticing descriptors to any less-than-exciting food. Skillet-braised carrots taste a lot better than the merely "cooked" kind.

When Law & Order starts, I'm ready. My salivary glands flow as before, and I still beeline to the fridge during the first commercial.

This time, however, I'm at least somewhat aware of what I'm doing.

I reach for a small bowl and a downsized scoop, then remove a box of reduced-calorie ice cream from the freezer. Thanks to the bowl, my double-breasted serving looks like the old ration, though I know objectively it's at least one-third less by volume alone.

Instead of chocolate sauce, I blanket the ice cream with fresh red raspberries before finishing it off with a dollop of Reddi-wip. I've come to love raspberries - -the result of what Cardello calls "the flavor-conditioning paradigm." When I told him I didn't crave fruits or vegetables but felt obligated to add more to my diet, he recommended gradually combining items I don't like with those I do. "Our studies have shown that after a week or so of combined exposures," he says, "people start liking the 'unpreferred' taste almost as much as they do the 'preferred' one."

The paradigm has worked with raspberries -- so much so that I've begun to consider skipping the ice cream altogether. Who knows? Maybe someday I'll try a broccoli sundae.

Thanks to a smaller spoon, it takes me as long as before to finish tonight's dessert. When the urge for saltines predictably strikes a half-hour later, I take another tip from the Wansink playbook. Instead of a full stack of Zestas in their prepackaged plastic sheath, I grab a sandwich bag I had filled earlier with 12 crackers. Instead of a Coke, I fill a high, narrow glass with skim milk.

The amazing thing about these shifts is they don't feel like dietary self-denial. In fact, the individual tweaks in my "food makeover" have proved too modest to notice. Taken together, however, the cumulative effects are unmistakable: 3 pounds already lost, more energy throughout the day, more vigorous workouts, and best of all, no sense that these benefits have stemmed from unsustainable sacrifice.

If anything, I've learned that the lessons of food psychology, applied wisely, offer the antithesis of deprivation: the ability to enjoy food a lot more while eating a lot less of it.

Strategic Eating
Four powerful countermoves against the forces of fat

1. Downsize your dishes: Unless you're eating off decades-old dishes, you probably have the newer, plus-size plates -- the kind that cause your eyes to override your appetite. Give them to Goodwill, and pick up either the 16-piece Santiago set by Dansk (10 1/2-inch dinner plates, 8-inch salad plates, and 7-inch soup bowls, $80) or the 20-piece Platinum Band set by Majestry (10 5/8-inch dinner plates, 7 3/4-inch salad plates, and 7 3/4-inch soup bowls, $60). Both are sold at bedbathandbeyond.com.

2. Be small-minded about snacks: In a recent experiment at the Cornell University food and brand lab, researchers gave study participants either a single bag containing 100 Wheat Thins or four smaller bags holding 25 Thins each, waited for the munching to subside, then did a cracker count. The tally: Those given the jumbo bag ate up to 20 percent more. Outsmart your snack habit by sticking with the tiny 100-calorie packs now being used for everything from Doritos to Goldfish.

3. Raise your glasses: Since even experienced bartenders pour more into short, wide glasses than they do into tall, narrow ones, you'll need to be creative when you play mixmaster at home. Start by using highball glasses to replace the squat tumblers you use for scotch and brandy. Next, put away your pint beer glasses and buy the pilsner kind. Finally, if you own balloon wine glasses, switch them with regular wine glasses. Just watch the red: Cornell researchers found that people inadvertently pour more red wine than white into the same-size glass.

4. Divide and dine: Until all restaurants become BYOP (bring your own plate), you'll need to shrink your serving in a different way: When your entrée arrives, dive in and eat half, then wait at least 10 minutes before coming out for round 2. While you chat and sip water, your stomach will have a chance to digest and decide whether you've had enough -- no matter what the plate's saying.

-- Heather Loeb

A Toothfish By Any Other Name?
The true identities of five foods we've been suckered into swallowing

Unappetizing Moniker: Patagonian toothfish
New and Improved Name: Chilean sea bass
History of the Switch: In 1977, fish merchant Lee Lantz traveled to Chile and "discovered" the toothfish, a species the locals deemed too oily to eat. Thirty years and Lantz's name change later, Chilean sea bass is so popular with American palates that it's almost on the verge of extinction.

Unappetizing Moniker: Rapeseed oil
New and Improved Name: Canola oil
History of the Switch: After research in the 1970s suggested that rapeseed oil's high level of erucic acid may cause heart damage, the Canadian seed-oil industry grew a strain called "low-erucic-acid rapeseed oil." In 1988, the FDA approved a name change to canola oil, and sales shot up.

Unappetizing Moniker: Prunes
New and Improved Name: Dried plums
History of the Switch: When the California Prune Board realized that the words "prune" and "laxative" were inextricably linked, they switched to "dried plums" in 2000. People bought it--in one test, tasters preferred the flavor of dried plums to prunes.

Unappetizing Moniker: Chinese Gooseberry
New and Improved Name: Kiwi
History of the Switch: In the 1960s, American produce importer Frieda Caplan renamed the Chinese gooseberry the kiwi, after New Zealand's national bird (also round, brown, and fuzzy). In no time, the fruit's popularity spiked.

Unappetizing Moniker: Dolphin
New and Improved Name: Mahimahi
History of the Switch: Even though the bony fish listed as "dolphin" on menus was unrelated to the mammal of the same name, diners still balked at ordering it. As a result, in the mid-1980s, restaurateurs started using the Hawaiian name--mahi-mahi--and all thoughts of Flipper were forgotten.

-- Heather Loeb

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