The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Why are so many Americans so fat? Because we eat too much—duh. (And don't exercise enough, natch.). But it goes deeper than that, and not just in Detroit, either. We tend to overeat in direct proportion to the overloaded amount of food we put on our plates, according to professor Brian Wansink at the University of Illinois. So if we sit down to smaller portions, we can psych ourselves into thinking that we need less food to get full.

In the soup experiment, participants come to the lab expecting a taste test. Some bowls are rigged with hidden tubes that keep them full, while others are not.

Over two years of the experiment, students with bottomless bowls tended to eat 40 percent more than test subjects with regular bowls.

"I wasn't aware of it," said Nina Huesgen, one of the students who got a trick bowl in a recent experiment. "That's why I feel so filled up, I guess."

James Painter, chairman of Eastern Illinois University's Family and Consumer Sciences Department, who collaborated with Wansink on the experiment, said one student drank almost a quart of soup.

"I said, 'What were you doing?' And he said, 'I was trying to reach the bottom of the bowl,' " Painter said.

I can understand the concept. I myself have a displeasure in not finishing everything that's on my plate; I feel as though I'm wasting the food if I toss it out. Most people were probably raised that way, to clear their plate--starving people in Africa and all that. It's not really an excuse for putting so much food on your plate in the first place, though.

It occurs to me that this little mind trick shows how we're not that far advanced from most animals. One of the first things I learned while keeping fish in an aquarium was that the little buggers will keep eating to no end if you keep giving them food, even after they're full. Their tiny brains are hardwired for survival purposes to stuff themselves beyond the limit whenever they come upon food, because in the wild, they might go several days between feedings. So they gorge themselves, and you have to maintain a discipline in not feeding them more than they need. It seems the average person's instincts operate on the same premise, despite the added brainpower. Funny.

I thought the influence of a food container's physical dimensions on consumption was fascinating, as well:

For example, people who drank out of short, fat glasses consumed considerably more than those who used tall, skinny glasses, even though the glasses held the same amount.

"The tendency we have is to focus on heights instead of widths," Wansink wrote in a report on the study. "That's why, for instance, people say, 'Boy, is the St. Louis Arch high.' But they never say, 'Boy, is it wide,' even though the dimensions are identical."

There's lots more of this fun stuff at Wansink's Food and Brand Lab site, including the weight control issue.

Is this a bad time to mention that, in the wake of the usual high-calorie holidays, I actually lost some weight? My pants felt a little looser this morning, and lo and behold, the scale revealed that I had lost about five pounds recently. Don't ask me how, I just shed pounds like that sometimes, probably a combination of activity and less consumption of certain foods. I wish I could keep it up, I could stand to lose another 10 pounds or so...