There seems to be no stopping America's expanding waistline, even though diets work when you stick with them. So researchers have a new focus — not what's going on in our bellies, but what's going on in our brains.
Distraction is a factor in how much we eat.
Washington, D.C.'s Union Station is the perfect place to illustrate the argument. It's loud, bustling, and there's food in every direction.
George and Caree Scott are eating a 10 a.m. snack of coffee and pastries, which is actually a second breakfast. But who's counting? The cafe atmosphere is right, it's still the holidays (sort of) and, as traveler Shawn Beegah says, why not indulge? Everybody seems to be doing it. With a steaming cup of coffee in front of him as he watches the crowd, Beegah tears into a giant calzone-type creation with bacon, egg and cheese in a bread roll — with a few layers of sausage thrown in, too.
"Yeah, it's probably going to cut a couple years off my life. But it's really good, so I'm enjoying myself now," Beegah says. "You should get one, actually."
Beegah says he usually does not eat this way. At home he wouldn't think of loading up on triple portions of fatty foods for breakfast. But traveling, being on the go, it turns out Beegah's brain isn't processing food the same way as it would if he were having a quiet meal in his own kitchen. The sensory overload can really throw off judgment or inure us to the sensation of feeling full. Scientists are just beginning to understand how this disruption works.
Dining On Distraction
"I think there are lots of factors that come together to ultimately influence how much we eat," says Suzanne Higgs, a psychologist at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. She's studying how our thinking processes and our state of mind influence what we eat.
Take distraction. Remember how I said that our calzone-eating friend at Union Station was distracted by all the people-watching? This may help explain why he chowed down so much at breakfast and why he was likely to eat more as the day went on.
Higgs recently measured the differences between people who ate their lunch, mindfully paying attention to each bite of food, compared with people who watched TV — or worked on their computers while eating.
"When people are distracted from their lunch, we find that — given the opportunity later in the day to consume cookies — they actually eat more cookies than if they weren't distracted when they ate their lunch," Higgs says.
So not only do people tend to consume more when they're not paying attention to a meal, but food also seems to taste duller.
Bring The Noise
In a recent study from the University of Manchester in the U.K. and Unilever, researcher Andy Woods experimented with varying levels of background noise in a dining room. He found that as it gets louder, people lose their ability to perceive saltiness and sweetness.
"We also found an intriguing link between food liking and background noise preference, such that when the person quite liked the background noise, they reported the food was more liked," Woods says.
The study, which included 48 participants, was published in the peer-reviewed journal Food Quality and Preference.
So if we want to enjoy what's on our plates, instead of jonesing for a second helping, maybe it wouldn't hurt to chill out and put on our favorite music during a meal.
The researchers hope to follow up on how noise levels influence perceived taste. They say that one explanation for the finding is that noise may distort the brain's ability to gauge other senses.
Lose Weight Or Eat Cake
But inevitably, we have to step back out into the world again, where temptation is everywhere.
"I think there's so much emphasis on food all the time," says scone-and-coffee lover Caree Scott.
She adds, look no further than magazines displayed at grocery check-outs — they're all the same. "On every issue, there's a thing that says 'lose 20 lbs by spring,' and then right underneath there, there's a picture of a cake."
Caree says the contradiction is almost laughable.
"You can't lose weight and also have the cake," she says.
That is a hard reality to swallow. And probably why next year I'll be back with another story: why it's so hard for people to stick with their diets.