Mindless eating: the food decisions we don’t realise we’re making

How many food-related decisions do you think you make every day? When Brian Wansink and Jeffery Sobal of Cornell University asked 139 participants this question, the average answer was 14 decisions. But then the participants were asked to break a typical day down, and think about how many ‘when’, ‘what’, ‘how much’, ‘where’ and ‘who with’ decisions they made for a typical meal, snack and drink. When these were added, it showed the participants made an average of 226 food decisions a day, 59 of which related to what kind of food to eat.
“Given that people so dramatically underestimate the number of food-related decisions they make in a day, it is not unfair to say we often engage in mindless eating”, the researchers said.
But not only are we unaware of the number of food decisions we make, we’re also blind to the environmental factors influencing those decisions, the researchers showed.

In four field studies, the researchers measured the amount eaten by 379 participants, half of whom were served with a particularly large bowl or plate of food. The participants given the extra-large servings ate an average of 31 per cent more food than the control participants. But crucially, just 8 per cent of them said afterwards that they thought they’d eaten any more than they would usually do. When told they’d been given an extra-large portion, 21 per cent continued to deny they’d eaten any more than usual, and of those who accepted they had eaten more than usual, only 4 per cent attributed this to the large plate or bowl their food had come in, with most others saying they’d eaten so much because they were hungry.

“This hesitancy to acknowledge one being influenced by an external cue is common and has even been found when people are presented with tangible evidence of their bias”, the researchers said. Greater awareness of the food decisions we make and the factors influencing them could be good for our health, they added. “Altering one’s immediate environment to make it less conducive to overeating can help us lose weight in a way that does not necessitate the discipline of dieting or the governance of another person”.

Wansink, B. & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless eating. The 200 daily food decisions we overlook. Environment and Behaviour, 39, 106-123.

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