Food For Thought: The Subtle Forces That Affect Your Appetite

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 (Kai Schreiber/Flickr)
(Kai Schreiber/Flickr)

What do large tables, large breakfasts, and large servers have in common? They all affect how much you eat. This week on Hidden Brain, we look at the hidden forces that drive our diets. First we hear from Adam Brumberg at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab about how to make healthier choices more easily (hint: good habits and pack your lunch!). Then, Senior (Svelte) Stopwatch Correspondent Daniel Pink returns for another round of Stopwatch Science to tell you about those tables, breakfasts, and servers. If you don't like spoilers, stop reading and go listen to the episode!

Here are the studies:

  • You may have heard that smaller portions can help you eat fewer calories. That's true. But what about larger tables? Researchers Brennan Davis, Collin Payne, and My Bui hypothesized that one of the ways smaller food units lead us to eat less is by playing with our perception. They tested this with pizza and found that while study participants tended to eat more small slices, they consumed fewer calories overall because it seemed like they were eating more. The researchers tried to distort people's perception even further by making the smaller slices seem bigger by putting them on a bigger table. What they found is that even hungry college students at fewer calories of (free) pizza when it was chopped into tiny slices and put on a big table.

  • What about who's around that big table? That seems to matter, too. Researchers found both men and women order more food when they eat with women but choose smaller portions when they eat in the company of men.

  • They say breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Well, it may also be the most slimming. When researchers assigned two groups of overweight women to eat a limited number of calories each day, they found those who ate more at breakfast and less at dinner shed about twice as many pounds as the other group.

  • We often try to coax children into eating their vegetables by promising it helps them grow big and strong. Well, research suggests that's the wrong tack. Michal Maimaran and Ayelet Fishbach ran several experiments looking at how the way food is described affects how much of it children eat. They found kids ate fewer carrots and crackers when the foods were described as nutritious rather than tasty.

  • Having a heavier waiter may subtly prompt you to eat more. That's what Tim Döring and Brian Wansink found when they studied nearly 500 interactions between diners and servers. Diners ordered more items, more alcohol, and were four times as likely to order dessert when waited on by a heavier server.

  • Here's some good news: cheating on your diet may not be such a bad thing! Researchers found dieters who planned to relapse every once in a while lost just as much weight as those who didn't. What's more, those who treated themselves were happier with their diet, which could help them to stick to it longer.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison, Maggie Penman and Max Nesterak. Special thanks this week to Daniel Shuhkin. To subscribe to our newsletter, click here. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, @karamcguirk, @maggiepenman and @maxnesterak, and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.