When researchers at the University of Michigan tested the effects of food cues—such as seeing pictures of fast food, smelling food or being in a restaurant environment—on the dietary habits of 112 college students, they found that these cues stimulate hunger and cause people to want foods they don’t even necessarily like to eat. For the purpose of this study, published in the November 21, 2017, issue of Clinical Psychological Science, the researchers define wanting as feeling strongly motivated, and liking as resulting in hedonic pleasure.
The students ate a meal an hour before the study began, and were then taken either to a food lab designed to look like a restaurant, or a laboratory that was neutral in design. They were shown photos of fast foods and other alternative activities on TV screens and were asked to choose between receiving tokens to purchase fast food or receiving tokens to participate in other activities. Those students who were tested in the restaurant-like environment felt hungrier, and consumed an average of about 220 more calories, regardless of whether or not they indicated a liking for the food, than those who were tested in the neutral-looking lab.
The researchers propose that wanting food is more likely to drive compulsive eating behavior than actually liking the taste of the food. They concluded that contextual cues like walking into a restaurant or looking at food advertisements increase wanting and hunger, thereby contributing more to overeating than simply enjoying the flavor of certain foods.
Previous studies found that when people are blindfolded before eating, their food loses what has been called “visual flavor,” so they not only eat significantly less food, they feel just as satisfied after a larger meal. In other words, without visual cues, smaller portions were just as filling as larger portions.
If you are concerned about what and how much you are eating, especially when it comes to supermarket convenience and food from fast food chains, it may help to understand (and ultimately try to avoid) some of the visual advertising strategies used by food manufacturers and chain restaurants that drive some of your decisions to buy and eat certain foods. An awareness of food cues helps you distinguish false hunger from the real thing, and that’s certainly a step toward more careful eating.
Joyner MA, Kim S, Gearhardt AN. Investigating Incentive-Sensitization Model of Eating Behavior: Impact of a Simulated Fast-Food Laboratory. Clinical Psychological Science. November 1, 2017;5(6):1014-1026 (Published online August 15, 2017.)
University of Michigan. (2017, November 21). Tempting your taste buds: Food cues entice consumers to overeat. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 1, 2017 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171121095153.htm
Renner B, Sproesser G, Stok FM, Schupp H. Eating in the dark: A dissociation between perceived and actual food consumption. Food Quality and Preference. June 2016; 50:145-151