Food is everywhere. Look around you, there is food in your home, your office, and your favorite coffee shop. It can even come in through your car window or sent straight to you through the click of a button.
There has never been a time where such energy dense food was so easily available, ubiquitous, and convenient.
For the most part these conditions aren’t entirely a bad thing, making food more convenient and available has freed up people to focus on other things that matter to them instead of constantly thinking about how to feed themselves.
But the problem has now shifted from how will I feed myself to how will I feed myself well.
In our previous post in the Eating Healthy in A Unhealthy World series, you learned about the macro food environment and how policies and social norms have given rise to nutritional confusion. While understanding the macro food environment is helpful, changing policies, regulations and practices are far from people’s daily lives (unless your a food advocate of course). So let’s one step closer and look at an equally important aspect of eating healthy that is more tangible, your micro food environment.
You can think of the micro food environment as the one that is more immediate to you, think your city, home, stores, your office, your friends and family, all these things that surround your everyday life affect your eating patterns in silent but profound ways.
The great thing is that unlike the macro food environment which is slow and difficult to change, you can for the most part influence and redesign your micro food environment and align it with your interests and goals. It’s just a matter of becoming aware of the things that cue you to eat in the first place so you can harness them for personal health.
Just like the previous post in this series, we’ll take just two examples to illustrate how your personal eating environment might be working against you. In this case we’ll look at the influence of your social circle on your eating patterns, and the hidden cues within your home that make you eat more than you should.
How Even Nutritionists Can Eat More Than They Should
Are you unknowingly serving yourself more than you think you are? Probably.
Recent research is finding out is that we’re not as finely tuned to know the difference between our physiological cues of hunger and satiety, and our psychological ones.
For example did you know that the size of your plates and utensils can make you eat more even if you’re not that hungry?
I know what you’re thinking, “Yeah right! I know how much I put on my plate, I’m not that dumb!”
Not so fast.
Let’s take a look at one study that shows that we’re not as immune to environmental cues as we like to think we are.
Brian Wansink, the Director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, has spent years studying the silent dynamics behind our eating habits. In his book, Mindless Eating, Wansink recounts a study he did over a decade ago that demonstrated that we’re not as keen to how much we serve ourselves. In 2001, Wansink and his lab set up a social experiment following a taping of the show 20/20 that profiled his lab and some of the research Wansink and his team were conducting.
To celebrate the end of filming an ice cream social was set up, but the thing is that the filming wasn’t really over, and in fact the ice-cream social was actually an experiment to investigate how utensil size and bowl size affected how much people served themselves.
The nutritional science division at Cornell including the faculty and its Ph.D students. (Pretty sneaky huh?)
When the guests showed up they were either given a 17 ounce bowl or a 34 ounce bowl and we’re invited to help themselves to as much ice cream as they’d like. In addition to the differing size bowls, Wansink also varied the sizes of the scoop, 2 & 3 ounces. At the end of the line subjects were given a survey as they weighed their bowls.
The people who were given the 34 ounce bowl served themselves 31 percent more ice cream than those who were given the 17 ounce bowl. Things got worse when you added the three ounce scoop to the equation, those people served 57% more ice cream than those who were given the smaller scoop & bowl.
So why was this the case?
According to Wansink, it’s just human nature, the culprit being the size-contrast illusion.
To simplify, large bowls and serving utensils make food look small, which causes people to serve themselves more than they intend to.
Think about your own home or office, how large are the plates your serve food on? or how about the size of the plates and utensils at your favorite restaurant?
As the study shows, even the most vigilant and food conscious of us can fall victim to the small hidden persuaders in our environment no matter our intentions.
Your Friends Are Making You Fat
Eating with others is fun, but is it also making you fat?
Have you noticed that the people in your life influence what you eat? Maybe it’s more obvious like how your girlfriend lovingly convinced you to go vegan for a few months, but there are also more subtle ways that the presence of others change how you eat.
In fact research has shown that it is quite predictable that people will change their eating patterns in the presence of others.
In one study, researchers set up a series of lunches where they served pizza, cookies and soft drinks. The people invited were first asked to eat alone, followed by an occasion where they ate with others in groups of four to eight.
What do you think happened when people ate alone?
As expected the amount varied, some people ate a little bit while others ate a lot. Nothing surprising there.
What do you think happened after people were placed in groups?
The people who ate only a little bit, actually ate more, and those who ate a lot, actually ate less this time.
The study concluded that norms (something we saw in the macro food environment as well) played a role in how much people ate.
When people eat together, they unknowingly create and follow norms around how much to eat. As they are eating they are signaling to each other what is an appropriate amount of food to eat. If everyone eats 5 pieces, and you normally eat just 2, then you might find yourself eating a third. It works the other way too, if you tend to eat a whole large pizza by yourself (8 pieces) but everyone else is only eating 2, you’ll probably eat less than a large pizza because you don’t want to be perceived differently from those around you.
Think about it, what and how much do your friends tend to eat? Have you noticed any changes in how you eat when you eat with others rather than when you eat alone? My guess is you probably do, and if so, it may be the social norms that are silently forming around you that get you to eat more or less than you normally would.
Uncovering The Subtle Cues
When it comes to eating healthy, sometimes our psychology overtakes our physiology leading us to eat more than we should.
Plate and utensil sizes as well as our social norms formed by our social circle are just a few examples of how we can easily be influenced to change our eating patterns to eat differently than we normally would.
But unlike the macro food environment which is primarily about policy, business practices, and regulations, your micro food environment to some extent can be influenced and redesigned to your advantage. You just have to first recognize the hidden persuaders so you can better harness them for your health.
In future posts we’ll talk about exactly that, how to uncover and harness the silent cues in your personal eating environment for healthy eating.
Photos via joyosity, hatch.m, Lori L. Stalteri