Dr. Zanni is a psychologist and health systems specialist based in Alexandria, Virginia.
Twenty years ago, few psychologists studied eating behaviors, but interest in food psychology has expanded with America's waistline. Some of the most interesting findings are featured in Mindless Eating, a book by Brian Wansink, PhD. Dr. Wansink conducts research on eating behaviors at his Cornell University laboratory, which resembles a restaurant, a cafeteria, and a television den, and simulates environmental, social, and cognitive variables.
Consider this environmental cue: serving bowl size. Participants serving themselves from either gallon-size bowls or half-gallon-size bowls ate 59% more snacks from the larger bowl.
And cognitive expectations? While eating identical meals, subjects received a complimentary bottle of wine from either Noah's Winery, California, or Noah's Winery, North Dakota. The bottles contained the identical inexpensive wine. Those with the California label ate 11% more food, lingered an extra 11 minutes, and rated the food and wine higher in quality, compared with those receiving the North Dakota label. The participants' belief that California wines are better affected their entire meal (known as the halo effect). Similarly, people will order Belgian Black Forest Double Chocolate Cake with greater frequency and rate it higher than the same menu item simply called Chocolate Cake.
How strong are cognitive expectations? In one study, approximately 60% of participants in a darkened room who were given chocolate yogurt, but told it was strawberry, rated it as having a good strawberry taste.
Knowledge is not power in this area. Subjects who attended a 90-minute lecture on food psychology still fell victim to cues. Food psychology helps identify cues and thoughts fueling overeating— cues that clinicians might use to a dieter's advantage.
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