Eyes Over Stomach –The Psychology of Eating

If we were all six-plus feet tall and had metabolisms faster than the speed of light, then the BC dining halls would be the perfect place to eat. But let’s be real. How many of us can actually finish the five servings of pasta that we get in what’s supposedly one? Or the amazingly delicious yet regrettably large wraps at Eagle’s Nest? Portion sizes and the psychology of eating have been hot topics due to the rise of obesity over the past decade. A recent study done at Cornell University reveals some interesting facts on our portion perception.

Dr. David R. Just and Dr. Brian Wansink of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab observed the ways in which labels affect how much food a person eats, and how much he or she is willing to pay for the food. They used the two labels “Regular” and “Double-Size,” to describe one set portion of spaghetti (1 cup). Those who ate the spaghetti labeled “Double-Size” left up to 10 times as much food on their plate than the one labeled “Regular.”

With a separate group, Just and Wansink served the subjects two different servings of spaghetti; the standard 1-cup, and a larger 2-cup portion. The 1-cup portions were labeled “Half-size” while the 2-cup portions were labeled “Regular.” They concluded that people eat more if the amount on their plate is deemed “normal.”

Image via Pinterest/GirlsGuideTo.com

Image via Pinterest/GirlsGuideTo.com

Here we see the inevitable desire to fit in with the norm—whatever that is. Food, in any setting, brings with it a social expectation. At an ice cream shop or snack bar we often eat not because we’re hungry, but because it’s socially right. There also exist clear limits to a male’s food intake versus a female’s intake. In the experiment, those who ate the spaghetti labeled “Regular” ended up consuming more because they thought it was the normal thing to do, whereas finishing a “Double-size” would be a crime. These labels—nothing but a word—defined a standard for the subjects.

The reality of life is that there is no norm. What’s normal for a football player isn’t going to be normal for a pint-sized ballerina. Some people do have metabolisms faster than the speed of light and we are all envious of them. So how much should BC be serving us?

There is no right answer. Rather, we need to be asking ourselves how much we know about what is on our plate.

The other day as I sat at Eagle’s Nest with a few friends, I rummaged through my backpack in search of my iPhone. Once it came out of hiding I opened Campus Calories, an application created by a BC student that lists the nutrition facts of every food on campus. One of my friends was on her last bite of the Toss it Chicken Caesar Salad –a fairly healthy choice in my mind. Regardless, I decided to look up the facts. 909 calories. She paused for a second and stared blankly into space trying to take in this absurd number of calories for a salad.

Dan Airley, a behavioral economist at Duke University, calls it “right-sizing” as opposed to “downsizing.”

In the past decades we have seen portion sizes rise inconceivably. An average bagel today measures over four inches in diameter while formerly they were 3 inches at the most. Prior to the 70s, movie theaters only offered one size of popcorn. Today we have the option of buying giant tubs –usually refillable too.

And let’s not forget the supersize phenomenon that brought us from a simple hamburger to the double quarter pounder with cheese.

So now it’s time to right-size. Find the portion size that’s right for you whether you’re a D1 athlete who needs 5,000 calories a day, or one who counts walking across campus as his or her daily exercise who needs maybe 2,000 calories.

On a side note, if you were curious about the other half of this study, it showed that people were willing to pay more for the spaghetti labeled “Double-sized” over the one labeled “Regular.” So I guess that justifies why all of the food we buy at BC costs just as much as a high-end entrée from the North End.

Featured image via Flickr/Colleen Proppe.

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Aya Tsuruta