What do spoons, small tables and healthy food have in common?
We're not particularly rational when it comes to food. Time and time again it has been shown that external cues, habit and based-on-nothing hunches affect our food choices, our hunger and appetite, our sense of taste, and even our happiness.
The Journal of the Association for Consumer Research is a new quarterly publication, and in its inaugural issue it's tackling the behavioral science of eating. In this issue are a few deliciously surprising and counterintuitive findings from studies.
Let's see which of these you'd have guessed.
Making small bigger
A larger table makes room for your elbows and for polite eating. But apparently, a smaller table can provide more than intimacy: it can lead you to eat more. Researchers divided pizza pies to 8 or to 16, and then placed them on small tables - just slightly larger than the pie - or larger ones. Students were invited to eat as many slices as they wanted.
Those eating on the small table thought the 1/16 slices were half as big as the 1/8 pies - which is correct - and ate twice as many when the slices were small. Those eating on the larger tables thought the 1/16 slice were the same as the 1/8 slices, and ate just about the same number of slices when those were half the size, practically halving their caloric intake.
A fork or a spoon?
Does cutlery choice affect how much we eat? If it's soup, it obviously does, but a new paper suggests we're unknowingly influenced by the instrument of our choice even with foods that can be picked up by either. Experiments report that the spoon makes people think the food is lower in calories, and they want to eat more of it.
Forks over spoons, is what this research recommends.
Is there a downside to healthy food?
Researchers studied the relationship between people's perception of food's healthfulness, and how filling it's going to be, and found that not only do people believe healthy food causes less satiety, they also order more, and eat more of it - and too much healthy food causes weight gain, which certainly isn't healthy.
Since so many food labels make health claims or subconsciously suggest health this might be pushing us all to overeat.
What should we do about these silent signals that push our buttons to eat more? I certainly don't think we should do away with spoons and insist on getting the largest table at a restaurant. Like magic tricks, once you know how it's done the illusion is broken. Knowing that these are tricks our mind - and in some cases the food industry - is playing on us can be immunity enough.