The Science of Eating- Part 1

Do you know why you eat?

We eat because we are hungry. We eat for energy. You might know some of the reasons we crave certain foods, but most of our food decisions come from hidden forces.

In fact, food psychologist Dr. Brian Wansink has found that we make more than 200 food decisions each day but we are unaware of 90 percent of them. Here at the Science of People, I like to explore the hidden forces that drive our behavior and in this post I want to talk about the science and psychology of eating.

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink, Ph.D. was our May Book Club book, and his research was fascinating. I am going to sum up the best parts for you in this article.

I want to convince you of this big idea:

The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.

orrrIf you understand the science of eating, you can reengineer the way you think about food and the way you diet-in other words, you shouldn’t be on a diet at all.

Questions We Will Answer:

  • Does food with a brand name really taste better?
  • Do you hate brussels sprouts because your mother did?
  • Does the size of your plate determine how hungry you feel?
  • How much would you eat if your soup bowl secretly refilled itself?
  • What does your favorite comfort food really say about you?
  • Why do you overeat so much at healthy restaurants?

Okay, onto the science of food.

#1: Food = Pleasure

“Food is a great pleasure in our life — not something we should compromise. We simply need to shift our surroundings to work with our lifestyle instead of against it” — Brian Wansink

Don’t ever let anyone tell you that food is the enemy. Food is and should be a pleasure. One of the scientific food principles that intrigued me most was the idea that we shouldn’t restrict our eating.

Every diet ever tells you to cut out or eliminate certain foods. The diet tips we hear all the time:

  • No carbs.
  • Eliminate anything white.
  • No fat.
  • Gluten-free.
  • No animal meat.
  • Cut out dairy.

Here’s the problem: The moment we consciously deny ourselves something, the more we’re likely to end up craving it more and more.

For example, I’m not a big meat eater. I happened to read the book Skinny Bitch a few years ago, which is a pro-vegan book. I am not kidding you, within 10 pages of learning that I should cut out animal products of all kinds I had the biggest craving for BBQ ribs. Before that moment, I had never in my life craved BBQ ribs until I was told I couldn’t have them. This is incredibly common. Most people will tell you that they have something that they don’t eat as a matter of principle (leaving aside food allergies of course). This sets you up for craving that exact food. Before we move onto the other science of eating tips:

  • Food Hack: Get rid of your eating rules. Let’s use the science of eating as a lifestyle not a rule book. Read on.

#2: Food for Thought

One of my favorite food science studies has to do with wine — also one of my favorite foods! In this study, researchers wanted to know if what you think about food effects how you eat. Researchers got $2 wine and put two different labels on them. One said the wine was from North Dakota and the other said the wine was from California. North Dakota is not exactly known for its vineyards, whereas California wine is known to be superb around the world. Researchers wanted to know if this thought expectation changed people’s expectation of the taste. Sure enough, people who got the California wine said the wine tasted better AND the entire meal tasted better. People who got the North Dakota bottle rated the wine and the meal lower. This tells us that the power of thought is incredibly powerful. This is called:

  • Expectation Assimilation: The notion that our taste perceptions are biased by our imagination, and if you expect a food to taste good it will. And if you expect a food to taste unpleasant it will.

oranges-1In one crazy study, researchers made participants eat chocolate yogurt in a dark room. They told the participants the yogurt was strawberry flavored even though they were all eating chocolate: 59 percent of participants rated the yogurt as having a “nice strawberry flavor!” They expected strawberry and they tasted strawberry.

  • Food Hack: Set high food expectations. Sure, you are eating broccoli, but take a moment before you eat it to remind yourself that you are eating crunchy, fresh broccoli. Did you make a smoothie from scratch? Then set the expectation of eating a delicious homemade, hand-crafted smoothie.

#3: Your Eyes Eat First

This builds upon #2 with a slight twist. How your food is presented is just as important as how it tastes. In other words, presentation is everything. In one study, researchers gave brownies to three groups of participants. The brownies were exactly the same but presented in different ways:

1. Group #1 got the brownie on a nice china dish.
2. Group #2 got the brownie on a paper plate.
3. Group #3 got the brownie on a napkin.

The researchers then asked participants how much they would pay for each brownie.

1. Group #1 who got the brownie on a nice china dish would have paid $1.27.
2. Group #2 who got the brownie on a paper plate would have paid 76 cents.
3. Group #3 who got the brownie on a napkin would have paid 53 cents.

Take the time to make your food look awesome. This is great for you and your dinner parties. I wasn’t sure how powerful this principle would be until I did it myself. I went to Goodwill and got some beautiful serving platters and vases. I then switched my fruit (normally on the counter or in a plain wooden bowl) into these nice displays:

orangesI’ll be darned if that fruit doesn’t disappear much quicker! Instead of ignoring the fruit completely, my husband and I have been gobbling them up. We also have people over all the time and I have noticed they are much more likely to grab a tangerine from my glass platter than when it was in the mesh bag it came in sitting on my counter!

  • Food Hack: Go make all of your healthy food look amazing. Bring out your nice platters, arrange the pears into a flower shape, put your colorful veggies on display as soon as you open the fridge.
  • Food Hack: This works really well with names for kids. In one study with campers, Dr. Wansink relabeled V8 juice as “rainforest smoothie” and it was a hit. Making peas, rice and chicken for your kids tonight? No you’re not! You’re making Power Peas, Tangy Chicken and Wild Wacky Rice!

Second part of this article continue next week>>>

Article courtesy of