Learning to Eat Less

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)


When you think about getting healthier or losing weight, tricking your brain probably isn’t on the list of things you’ve chosen to do. But it might be the most important.

Research shows that a lot of how you eat and drink affects the way your brain processes that information and how it subsequently asks the rest of your body to treat it. Studies show, for instance, that people who listen to slow classical music take 3.83 bites per minute, while those who listen to fast music take about 4.4. So, if you’re looking to fit into those prepregnancy jeans any time soon, turn off The Killers and play some Mozart instead.

Neurogastronomy — a term that didn’t exist until 2006 — is now gaining acceptance in the popular lexicon. The term was coined in the journal Nature Insight by Gordon M. Shepherd, a professor of neurobiology at Yale. “People hadn’t realized how central food flavor is to animal, and especially human, behavior,” says Shepherd. Dan Han — chief of University of Kentucky’s Neuropsychology Service’s clinical section, and founding member of the International Society of Neurogastronomy — has noted that the field connects “neurosciences, clinical health sciences, culinary arts, and agriculture and food technology.”

Can you use neurogastronomy to change your eating behaviors? It turns out that you can. Here are some simple ways.

SIZE

If you’re looking to cut back on your portions, you can’t go wrong with using smaller plates and bowls. A study in the Journal of Consumer Research noted that people tend to serve themselves considerably less in small bowls than they do in large ones. An earlier study found that even nutritional experts ate more ice cream when using larger dinnerware, though it seemed to only happen when they were dining with other people and not alone.

Plate size isn’t the only thing to be aware of. Glasses and forks matter, too. Taller glasses and bigger forks, to be precise. A study published in the British Medical Journal discovered that people tended to pour 20 to 30 percent more alcohol into short, wide glasses than into tall, narrow ones of the same volume.

And yet another study from the Journal of Consumer Research found that participants who ate with bigger forks ate considerably less than those with smaller ones. Since we’re on the subject of size, let’s talk about food portions.

First, as recommended by Arizona State University’s psychology department, cut up your food into smaller pieces. This will trick your brain into thinking you’re eating more than you are, so you’re likely to eat less.

Speaking of which, a study published in Obesity found that participants ate 25.2 percent fewer calories when eating from 100-calorie snack packs than from larger bags. Remember when you told yourself that you’d finish that large packet over a period of days? You were lying.

COLOR

It’s not just size that matters when it comes to healthy eating — color does also.

The first order of the day, according to a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, is to make sure your plate or bowl is a different color than your food. The bigger the difference, in fact, the less likely you are to over-serve yourself. So, repeat with me: The pasta goes into the green bowl, tomato soup inside the white one, and white rice onto a black plate.

And not to get too anal about it, but tablecloth color matters, too. Consumer Research published a report in which it noted that when the tablecloth color matched the dishware color, participants served themselves less food.

ENVIRONMENT

Here are the ground rules: Don’t eat in front of the computer or television, because the more distracted we are, the more we tend to eat. Keep your food out of reach because the more convenient and visible that bag of chips is, the more likely you are to reach for it — continuously. And eat with soft lighting and music.

Like mentioned above, the music will affect your mood, and your mood will affect how many bites of that cheesy pasta you take. Research also suggests that if you remove the bright, harsh lighting in your dining area and replace it with warm, white LED bulbs, you — like the subjects of Cornell University’s research — might find yourself eating 18 percent less.

If you’re especially prone to overeating, beat yourself at your own game by putting up a mirror in your dining area. According to researchers at Iowa State University, “something as simple as a mirror on a refrigerator” is all it takes. In their study, diners who ate in a room with a large mirror consumed less fatty food than those who couldn’t see themselves.

IMAGINATION

Most of us assume that thinking about eating will automatically lead to eating more, but in reality, the reverse is true. A 2010 study published in Science showed that after you’ve imagined eating a certain food, you’re less likely to want to eat it. This doesn’t work if you simply picture the food. You really have to imagine what it would look like and taste like when you eat it.

The researchers believed this happened due to habituation. “To some extent, merely imagining an experience is a substitute for actual experience,” said one of the researchers Joachim Vosgerau. “The difference between imagining and experiencing may be smaller than previously assumed.”

When you are eating, remember to enjoy every bite. In fact, it’s been proven that when you slow down and focus on every bite of food, you recognize when you’re full, so you can stop before you reach the point of overeating. This is called mindful eating, and has been shown to cut down on a person’s calorie intake. What mindful eating also does is allow you to chew your food more thoroughly, which means you’ll experience fewer digestive issues as a result.

Limit your options, too. In a recent study of 70 children between the ages of 11 and 12, researchers from the University of Bristol found that familiarity with food products made children feel fuller and led to a reduced portion size. Dr. Charlotte Hardman, one of the report’s authors, said: “Presenting children with a wide variety of different snack food products may make it difficult to predict their fullness. Our study suggests that if parents choose to give snack foods to their children, they may wish to stick to the same products.”

Finally, here’s a trick we could all use: Make sure to keep fruit, vegetables, and other healthy food around at all times, even though you don’t necessarily eat it. When it just sits there while you’re scarfing down that pizza, it will subconsciously register and make you a better eater. Researchers from Cornell University in fact found that even when you don’t choose the healthier option you have available, just having it in front of you means that you’re more likely to make healthier choices.

In a study they conducted at a school cafeteria, the Cornell researchers placed sugary meals like applesauce and fruit cocktail on the counter one day, and on the next, they added things like green beans and bananas to the selection. Most students gravitated toward the unhealthier options, which was to be expected.

What the Cornell researchers hadn’t expected — and what made this study so interesting — was that on the days when green beans and bananas were placed in front of the students, their overall meals were healthier.

So, there you have it. Losing weight or eating healthy isn’t just about willpower — it’s about creating conditions that allow your brain to guide your behaviors.

HOW OUR BRAINS PERCEIVE THE FLAVOR OF FOOD

What if we could change the way food tastes — not by changing the food itself, but how our brain perceives it?

What if scientists could manipulate neurological signals inside your body to make broccoli taste like chocolate? Interesting? Or freaky?

It is a question scientists are asking about the future of food. “We could potentially revolutionize the flavoring of foods,” says Tim McClintock, a physiology professor at the University of Kentucky. “Some people might find it creepy, but in fact, scientists believe the health benefits could be substantial.” It could, for instance, help patients with low appetite regain the motivation to eat, make nutritious food more appealing to people undergoing chemotherapy, or make healthy snacks just as enticing to patients with compulsive eating disorders as junk food.


With advances in the new field of neurogastronomy, this may be just the beginning.

(Editor’s note: This article from a past issue of Brain World magazineIf you enjoy this article, consider a print or digital subscription!)

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