Why how much you eat depends on the plate colour, how you serve, and where you sit…
Now here’s a thing. I have a customer who collects diets – as in “ways of getting slim”. He says it is an interesting hobby, and the only problem he has with it is keeping up with the mountainous volume of new articles and books that he is sent each week.
Now I can understand that, because every day I go into a bookstore or even my local supermarket there will be new books on display about healthy eating. My customer collects these, plus all sorts of newspaper articles about diets, and then the problems with those same diets, and details of why they don’t work, and, of course, the next diet.
I was fascinated by all this, and realising that I was face to face with an expert I decided to make the most of the opportunity and ask him exactly which diet I should use if I wanted to reduce weight (which of course I don’t, because I am not overweight, absolutely most certainly not at all, no, definitely not. Not a bit.).
“There are now considered to be two solutions to overeating,” my customer said. “The first is sheer willpower. You simply eat less, and then once you are established eating less, you eat a bit less than before. What you mustn’t do is succumb to the notion that “I’ve been very good of late so I deserve a treat.” That really doesn’t work.
“The second approach is less well known but much more effective, and it takes eating out of the zone in which we endlessly think about eating, and instead makes it something we don’t think about at all.
“The approach has been written about a little, but not very much. Certainly the food industry doesn’t like it, because it challenges the way in which they encourage people to eat less. It is all to do with the psychology of perception.”
Now I have to admit that I am a bit of a sucker for a good conspiracy theory, and I’ve heard that these psychology of perception people really do think that the way we behave is all down to what we see. That always sounds farfetched to me, so I asked for an example.
“If you have plates that are the same colour as your food,” my customer said, “you will inevitably put more food on your plate. But 99.9% of people who are told this, believe that this will apply to other people, but not to them, so they ignore the advice and thus put more on their plate.”
“Is that really true?” I asked.
“It’s an experiment psychology departments do all the time in universities. They have a free buffet for the students, so they all turn up; anything for a free lunch. At random they give people either red or white pasta, which they can ladle onto red or white dishes which are handed out at random. At the end of the self service the student has to put the dish down on what looks like a normal part of the serving area but is actually a weighing machine, while they swipe their student card.
“The person behind the counter records which of the options the student has used – red pasta on red dish, white pasta on a red dish, red on white, white on white, and that is noted against the weight from the machine.
“People who take white on white or red on red invariably take 18 percent more pasta than those who used either of the other two options. A check of the level of eating showed that the red/red and white/white people were more likely to eat everything and leave no leftovers.
“That’s a fairly obscure finding,” my customer added, “but there are more obvious ones. If you keep a big pack of whole-grain breakfast cereal like Shredded Wheat, Cheerios or muesli in a place that is easy to see in your kitchen, you will eat more of it and put on weight. In one experiment, women who had kitchens in which the cereal was visible all the time were found to weight 9.5kg more, on average.”
“But why?” I pondered.
“Because the packages are covered with pictures of healthy women with healthy sparkling teeth,” my customer said, showing me a cut out of a typical package.
“Here’s another one. If you sit down for a meal with the serving dishes on the table, rather than the serving dishes on the side or serving straight from the dish you cooked in, you will eat 19% more. We always serve ourselves more when given the chance. The cook gives us less.”
I was shocked. I was stunned. I was amazed. I was annoyed. Could this be true – is it the way we do things and arrange things that makes us fat?
I tried another approach. “What about alcohol?” I asked, “Do you have a psychology of perception way of reducing the amount I drink?”
“We drink less from tall thin glasses than wide glasses. And put your glass on the table when you pour your drink in – we all pour far less into a glass that is on the table rather than one we are holding. Also move from white wine to red wine. People always pour less red.”
“Because they see it more easily?” I asked.
“Sure thing. But remember – the key lesson from the psychology of perception is that even when you know about every trick the brain plays, it doesn’t mean you can resist, just by knowing. You have to just go with it. As with restaurants…” (he paused to rummage in another box and produced another newspaper report) “… sit in a well-lit part of the restaurant near a window with at least three tables between you and the bar. If there’s a TV screen, get as far away from it as possible.”
He closed the boxes and packed up. “We’re doing research in a set of restaurants,” he explained, “to verify some new points. You can read the rest in my forthcoming book.”
And with that he packed away his boxes and was gone.
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