Food Choices: Not as Easy as Pie

“Just make healthy food choices,” diet gurus say. As if choosing to be well nourished and svelte were simple.

Brian Wansink, a Cornell professor and founder of Consumer Camp, studies food choices in Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab. An article in this month’s Stanford Magazine (“Mind Over Platter”) desribes some of his fascinating (and helpful) findings:

1) We eat more M&M’s when they’re sorted by color.

2) We eat more nuts or candies from a jar when we can see through the jar than when it’s opaque.

3) We eat more popcorn if given a huge bucket than we do if given a medium-sized bucket. Same goes for plates.

4) We value food more when it comes with pleasant surprise, even a simple thing like a plastic toy. (Parents filling school lunchboxes, take note. Also anyone planning a dinner party. Airline dieticians – ignore this! We’d really rather have edible food!)

5) We prefer food with exotic, descriptive names – such as Bavarian Dark Forest Chocolate Cake – as opposed to chocolate cake. Same goes for Starbucks’ “grande chai soy latte” and infinite other variations on that theme.

The “takeaway” lesson? We’re not as “in control” as we might think we are. Our choices and perceptions are greatly influenced by the subconscious, which has its own ideas about what it likes and wants. Therefore, pay attention not only to food, but to how it’s prepared and served and described. And if you prefer not to eat a lot of popcorn, never buy the big bucket.

Mariah Burton Nelson
American Association for Physical Activity and Recreation MNelson@aahperd.org

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5 Responses to “Food Choices: Not as Easy as Pie”

  1. Rebecca Morgan Says:

    «“Just make healthy food choices,” diet gurus say. As if choosing to be well nourished and svelte were simple.»

    Thank you for pointing this out. Not much is more annoying to me than to be told by a skinny MD to “just eat less.” I want to shout, “My god! You have given me the solution to my decades-long wieght program! Why didn’t I think of that?” Their suggestion is patronizing in that if an intelligent person can’t control how much she eats, it really isn’t about “just eat less,” is it?

    And what we think are healthy may not really be. We are bambozzled by the ads for “low-fat” cookies. But when we really look, low fat doesn’t necessarily mean low calorie. So we can be eating lots of Snackwell’s cookies only to still gain weight.

    And I can’t resist commenting on the M&M item. Does this mean that hte rock stars who order one-color M&Ms eat more?

  2. Mariah Burton Nelson Says:

    A good motto to live by: Don’t believe what you read on packaged cookies. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that if they’re cookies, they’re not “good for you.” And if anything comes in a package, it’s probably not good for you either – or not as good if it were as fresh.

    However, IMHO, a long, healthy life with no cookies would be a sad life indeed – at least, if one loves cookies. The word moderation comes to mind.

    As does habit. I’m not in the habit of eating cookies. Therefore, I don’t eat very many. Same for cake and ice cream.

    As the Stanford magazine article points out, many of our food choices are downright unconscious.

    Therefore, seems to me, the more we can CREATE NEW HABITS – such as a healthy breakfast every morning, before you’re even awake enough to really think about it – can go a long way toward overall healthy nutrition.

    Good news: Tastes literalliy change. When you reduce processed sugar intake to almost nothing, grapes start tasting a lot better — and can satisfying a sweet tooth. At least, that worked for me. Worth trying. But I still eat cookies now and then. Chocolates too. Life is short. Loathing one’s body is not helpful, spiritually or otherwise. Be kind to your body.

    Much more than weight loss, your body needs love. And you’re perfectly positioned to provide that love – in the form of kind words and actions.

  3. Mom Says:

    Re this article on food choices, you might be interested in a very informative article in
    The New York Times Magazine/Sunday,Sept16/p52.
    The Title is “Unhealthy Science”
    Subtitle is “Why can’t we trust much of what we hear about diet,health and behavior-related diseases?”
    It is a very interesting discussion of epidemiological studies and why health research is so complex and questioably reliable.
    With your background in Public Health and statistics I think you might be intrigued as I was by this thoughtful approach to an important subject.

  4. Tero Says:

    I think as long as you learn to eat foods that heal
    on a regular basis. It’s ok to spurge and have my oreo sundae every now and then.


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