Food choice is an illusion, claim Cornell researchers

By Caroline Scott-Thomas

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition

He'll grow into them...
He'll grow into them...
The food environment in which most of us live makes it ‘almost impossible’ to lose weight – and willpower is not enough to counter it, according to a new paper published in the journal Public Health Nutrition.

The researchers, from Cornell University, reviewed hundreds of articles on eating behavior and found that among many subconscious environmental cues that influence what and how much we eat, portion size is among the most powerful. As portion sizes have increased, so has the amount people tend to eat.

“Food choice is an illusion,”​ wrote David Levitsky, professor of nutritional sciences and of psychology at Cornell, who co-authored the article with graduate student Carly Pacanowski.

They found that a complex combination of factors influenced our food choices, including portion size, variety of foods offered, fat content of the diet, the number of people eating, location, and exposure to food advertising. These all act as ‘food primes’, which cause people to increase their energy intake.

“In combination, these factors are so powerful that, unless we are restrained by surgery or structured eating plans, or by a dedication to prevent future weight gain (restrained eating), we become vulnerable to all stimuli presented, mostly by commercial interests who have learned to effectively use these techniques to encourage us to eat a little more,” ​they wrote.

The paper claims that such a food environment has emerged since the 1980s, when rates of obesity began to accelerate in the United States. Per capita caloric intake has increased by about 9-30 calories a day since then.

“An individual’s decision to eat is not a result of personal weakness, but rather is determined, to a great extent, by the many environmental cues that have emerged since the early 1980s as a consequence of the commercialization of food,”​ they wrote.

The authors acknowledge that personal responsibility does play a role, but advocate using it in the context of collective responsibility to change our food environment in order to tackle obesity – and to reject the notion that people are entirely free to choose what they eat.

They wrote: “If we add our personal responsibility to resist food cues to the collective responsibility of government to control the many food signals in our environment…we may amass the power, and the will, to curb the epidemic of obesity.”

The paper is available online here​.

Related topics: R&D, The obesity problem

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9 comments

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Not Easy, But Possible.

Posted by Donna Marlor,

I am a Registered Dietitian and have done"weight loss" counseling for 30 years. BEFORE we blamed everything on environment, overweight clients had most of the same bad eating habits that clients have now. Sugar, Fat, Processed foods. NO EXERCISE. Walking 30 min a day and sitting the rest is pretty much comatose.

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How to lose weight? Stop eating junk...!

Posted by Les Bailey,

I eat fast food every day until last year, then I stopped! I now eat more fruit and veg and only have the occasional soda. In 12 months I've lost 35lbs simply by changing my diet - not through exercise, I used to be hungry all of the time now I'm not... The more fat and sugar we consume - the more we want - we just need to learn to say NO.

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Turn the TV OFF. Then COOK YOUR OWN FOOD

Posted by Lynn Maarouf,MS,RD,CDE,

Agreed. People have a million excuses for why they can't lose weight, but everyone can walk and cook their own foods. We even grow some of our own food. When people tell me they can't afford fresh fruit and vegetables (but they can afford Pizza,sodas & chips -and of course cable TV) I look at them and ask them if they have a backyard. If they say they do, I tell them they can plant a fruit tree, blackberries, tomatoes,etc., and in this climate you often only have to plant them Once.

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