How External Factors Influence Your Food Choices

Eating a healthy diet can be difficult. From deciding when and what to eat to how much food you actually put on your plate, the average person makes more than 200 food decisions every day, most of which are automatic. This automatic choice, which some experts call “mindless eating,” occurs when we eat and drink without thinking about what food or how much to consume. We will continue to eat chips from the plate even after they are full, simply because they are in front of us.

This article originally appeared in The Conversation .

Even the most disciplined consumers cannot completely control what they eat. Research has shown that decisions such as when, what, and how much to eat are often made by subtle forces beyond our understanding or direct control. These environmental factors can cause us to overeat, taking advantage of biological, psychological, social and economic vulnerabilities. This helps explain why two billion people worldwide are overweight or obese and why no country has yet been able to reverse the obesity epidemic.

There is hope. Research has shed light on the main factors contributing to overeating, including biological, psychological, social and economic. Now that we know more about them, we can better intervene.

How biology affects our appetites

Why do people tend to prefer foods like chocolate over salad? Taste preferences such as “sweet tooth” are inherent in human biology and can change over the course of our lives. For example, children tend to prefer sugary foods more than adults.

The modern food environment has led to an influx of processed foods loaded with sugar, fat, salt, flavor enhancers, food additives, caffeine, and more. These ingredients are manipulated to try to maximize their biological pleasure and satisfy these innate taste preferences.

For example, research shows that some delicious foods, such as chocolate milkshakes, can trigger brain responses similar to those in humans to addictive substances, giving new meaning to the idea of ​​”high sugar”.

But processed foods are also often devoid of the ingredients like water, fiber, and protein that make us feel full, which makes it difficult for our bodies to regulate food intake and maintain weight.

Your brain loves food

In addition to our biological enjoyment of highly processed foods, there is a lot of psychological love in them. From McDonald’s Happy Meals toys to Coca-Cola’s global marketing campaign, Open Happiness , there are many examples of the connection between food and pleasure.

Companies spend billions of dollars in food marketing to build strong, positive associations with their products. One study showed that children really think that one and the same food tastes better when it is decorated with cartoon characters such as Dora the Explorer, or Shrek.

There are also many small ways the environment can promote overeating. People eat more when theyare served large portions, no matter how hungry they are. Junk food is also highly visible and desirable because it is everywhere – in schools, restaurants, convenience stores, supermarkets and vending machines. They even infiltrated stores selling office supplies and household goods.

The places where we make many food decisions can be overwhelming for busy consumers (there are 40,000 different foods in a typical supermarket), and most of the psychological signals in our environment signal us to eat more, not less.

For example, large portion sizes, food prices, grocery placement, and product-to-market strategies are all influencing our dietary decisions on a daily basis. Consider just the serving size : Drinking Coca-Cola in the 1950s meant drinking a 6.5-ounce glass; Today 7-Eleven Double Gulp is about 10 times larger and contains almost 800 calories.

But when it comes to food, out of sight often means passing out. Google provides employees with free snacks and found that employees were eating too much M&M. So they put M&M in opaque containers and made healthy snacks more visible.

M&M’s simple exclusion of the 2,000 New York office workers meant they consumed 3.1 million calories in just seven weeks.

The environment affects what you eat

Junk food is often inexpensive , making it especially attractive for those on a budget. But fast food and ready-to-eat foods from convenience stores are also widely available and easier and faster to prepare than homemade meals, leaving busy consumers vulnerable to overeating. Food companies also target specific groups in a targeted manner. For example, recent reports have shown that soda companies in the US are increasing their spending on black and Hispanic youth , which is worrying as these groups have higher rates of obesity.

The good news is that public debate about obesity and policymaking is beginning to reflect scientific evidence. The public and policymakers recognize that health problems such as obesity and associated chronic diseases are not only related to individual food choices. Humans tend to over-consume unhealthy foods because our current food environment exploits biological, psychological, social and economic vulnerabilities, undermining people’s ability to take personal responsibility for their food choices.

Since weight loss programs often result in limited weight loss that is difficult to maintain, a more determined effort is needed to prevent overweight and obesity in the first place. Fortunately, political interventions are being introduced.

In the US, the FDA will require large chain restaurants to list calories on food menus in 2016 and have proposed adding daily added sugar on food labels to limit consumption.

While research on the impact of calorie labeling and food choice is mixed, available evidence suggests that calorie labeling promotes lower-calorie food choices for some consumers, sometimes in some restaurants.

The FDA has also taken action to remove harmful trans fats that increase the risk of heart disease from processed foods.

The United States, the United Kingdom, Peru, Uruguay and Costa Rica have adopted policies to eliminate “unhealthy food” from public schools (out of sight, out of sight). Mexico recently introduced a tax of 1 peso (8 cents) per liter of sugar-sweetened beverages to curb the obesity epidemic. Berkeley, California, imposed a $ 0.01 per ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in 2014 and expects to receive $ 1.2 million from this this year.

Chile and Peru have banned the use of toys in Happy Meals. McDonald’s, Wendy’s and Burger King have eliminated soft drinks from their children’s menu.

These are important first steps in the fight against the obesity epidemic, and more research is needed to understand which measures will work best. Changing what and how much we eat requires innovative action, as well as voluntary efforts by the food industry to make healthier choices easier and more desirable.

Hungry? Food choices are often influenced by forces beyond your control | Talk


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