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I was giving a talk the other night and as part of it there was a discussion of how the perceptions of what we eat can guide our consumption. One of my favorite researchers, Brian Wansink, has published numerous studies showing that how we think about food influences what we eat. His work has both the ability to help us understand how we look at food but also to laugh at ourselves a bit over how easily we can be duped by our perceptions.
Here are some examples:
I have conversations all the time with folks about different ingredients. At talks and lectures I'm asked about healthy versions of different foods and what I think. As part of the dialogue the joke often comes up that eating healthier foods is great because you can eat more of them. While this gets a laugh every time there's actually great research to show that folks react in just this way.
In a great piece of research out of the University of Toronto Veronique Provencher and her colleagues tested whether folks would eat more cookies if they were told in advance that they were healthy. Participants were presented with two possible cookies described as follows:
‘‘The snack product that you have to taste today is a new high-ﬁbre oatmeal snack made with healthy ingredients. You have certainly heard that whole oatmeal is good for your health because it contains soluble ﬁbres. So, this new oatmeal snack is high in soluble ﬁbres, as well as low in saturated fat and free from trans fat.''
‘‘New gourmet cookies made with fresh butter and old-fashioned brown sugar. So, these new cookies are a great treat with a pleasant, sweet taste.''
You guessed it: same cookies. When folks ate the cookies described as healthy they ate more. A lot more. 35% more on average.
I find it fascinating that a lot of the research shows that folks think that healthier foods don't taste as good - even though it's been well documented that they can't tell the difference in blind taste tests. Equally interesting is that when they eat foods that are supposed to be healthy they will often eat more. Hmmm… let's see: “The food doesn't taste as good, but because it's healthier I'll eat more of it.”
Amazing and fun.
It's simple. There are a lot of great healthy choices for all of us in the grocery store these days. Making healthier choices is key, but at the same time being careful about how much we eat is just as important.
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
March 30, 2009