Food has gone through a technological revolution in the US in the last 50 years. Food is available in more variety, in more forms and in more combinations than ever before. The key word in that previous sentence, according to one food psychology expert, is “more.”
The obesity epidemic afflicting North America has given rise to many explanations as to its reasons, offering multiple avenues of attack. But, according to Prof. Jim Painter of Eastern Illinois University, it’s helpful to hold on to some basic concepts when trying to decide what do about the fattening of America.
“In my opinion the two things that have changed is that food is everywhere and portions are bigger. It is the number one thing that is driving the obesity epidemic,” Painter told FoodNavigator-USA.
Portions got bigger as marketers of food learned more about consumer behavior and the subtle psychological cues consumers use to decide how much to eat, Painter said. The fast food chains learned early on that trying to offer a customer additional food after they’d already eaten a smallish hamburger and a small order of fries was futile; most would say they were no longer hungry. But offer them a larger burger, a big order of fries and a giant drink at the outset, with its implied virtues of opulence and better value, and customers went for it in droves. And often ended up eating the whole thing.
Bigger portions everywhere
And portions didn’t just get bigger in restaurants, Painter said. They got bigger across the board: Bigger bags of chips, 16 oz soft drink bottles, 24 oz to 32 oz size bottles of sugary energy drinks. Six-ounce Coke bottles have now become archeological artifacts.
Methods for dealing with the situation this created exploded with the number of consumers seeking to shed the extra pounds, Painter said. One of the more successful is Weight Watchers, which preaches portion control via a points system that is essentially a sanitized version of calorie counting.
“But instead of counting calories, I would rather have people change their dining environment so that they eat less without knowing it,” he said.
“We did a little study on ice cream, with small bowls, small spoons and small scoops. When (participants) used the smallest sizes they ate half as much,” Painter said.
In another study Painter cited participants loaded up a plate as a buffet bar. That plate was withdrawn on a pretext before participants had a chance to eat the meal, and they were given a smaller plate for a another visit to the buffet. When asked by the researchers which of the two plates contained more food, participants said they were aware of the smaller plate size and therefore consciously piled it higher. But in fact the smaller plates contained less food, even though participants were actively trying to compensate.
Small is beautiful
Painter offers consumers some tips for dealing with the supersize epidemic. One is to work with the body’s built-in control mechanisms. The same techniques marketers use to push more food can be turned around to help people eat less.
“The first key is changing your dining environment as best you can. Whenever you get a chance to do it, choose small,” Painter said.
“For the consumer, if you buy a big bag of chips that contains 12 portions you are going to eat about eight of them until you get ill and then you’ll stop,” he said.
“If you buy little one-ounce bags you have to open bag after bag and it gives you a chance to stop along the way and you’ll just eat less because you have to keep making the decision to eat more. If you have a big open container you have to make the decision to stop. Those are two completely different things.
“Manufacturers have caught on to this and everybody is coming out with 100-calories portions, and they can make money with that because they can charge a little bit more,” he said.
Low-fat, low-carb misses the point
Painter said he generally doesn’t hold with diet plans that demonize one category of food, like Atkins or the ultra-low fat Ornish regimen.
“All the diets have a grain of truth. Atkins, does it work? Yes. Can anybody stay on it for a period of time? No. And is it healthy to do that? I don’t think so.
“If you tell anybody you can eat in this half of the store but not that half, whether it is the low carb half or the low fat half, people will lose weight. But it’s not practical,” Painter said.
Food content can make a (small) difference
Painter said the picture is a little less clear-cut when talking about individual ingredients. There is evidence for the satiety-promoting effects of high fiber foods, or protein dense foods, or foods that contain certain high-tech ingredients such as resistant starches that promote the production of short-chain fatty acids in the lower intestine. Whole foods in general perform better than processed foods on this measure.
And food choices can affect intake, he said. A study Painter did for the California Raisin Marketing Board (for whom he consults) showed that kids who ate raisins or grapes for an afternoon snack took in fewer calories overall than kids who ate cookies or potato chips.
“The most important factor is portion size. But there are some good studies out there that show that depending on what you choose it can change things. More fiber helps you feel full. More water makes you feel full. You’ll eat less if you eat an apple than if you drink apple juice,” Painter said.
But it is very easy to miss the forest for the trees in the obesity debate, he said.
“When you look at all these little things that are not the answer, you miss the answer. Food is everywhere, and portions are bigger. How do we help ourselves deal with that?”