Tricking Your Brain into Eating Less

This was the sub-headline on the front cover of the April 09 issue of Australian Healthy Food magazine. Oh what are they on about now, I thought, so naturally I bought it. I expected it to be another “imagine the chocolate is chopped up worms” production and was pleasantly surprised at how relatively balanced it was, backed by good research, and just plain interesting! I’m adding my own ‘how to beat it’ tips to this post, by the way, just so you know (some of the solutions they talked about were well, juvenile, like you are not an adult well capable of taking logical thoughtful responsibility for your food intake).

In case you’re wondering why there’s so much research into our food preferences, the drive for this kind of information comes from a load of directions:

  • the food industry itself, wanting to know what we do and don’t think and feel about our food, so they can use that information to develop products
  • the advertising industry, wanting to know what buttons to push to get us to buy the food-like substances produced by some parts of the food industry
  • the weight loss industry, wanting to know how they can manipulate food to make their programmes seem more effective
  • the health industry, wanting to know how the body really works and what our bodies really need, and don’t need, and do with what we put into them
  • industry groups, wanting to know if their food has any specific health benefit they can use to better market their product

And I’m sure there are others that I’m not thinking of right now – feel free to comment below. Regardless, you’d think we’d know all there was to know, but I think the more we know, the more we know we don’t know! So the studies continue.

Anyway back to the article in Australian Healthy Food, which discusses three main ways we are tricked into eating (buying) more food:

Underestimate How Much We Eat

On average we all underestimate our food consumption by about 20%; the larger you are the more likely you are to underestimate your food consumption.

  • Portion sizes are manipulated accordingly: if a food is served in a larger serving we’re more likely to eat more of it, as we think it’s normal. One study gave two groups of people endless soup bowls, one refilled by waiters, one secretly refilled while the people were eating from the bowl. The secret-refillers ate 73% more than the other group.
  • When we see food, our bodies get ready to eat it: we salivate more, produce more digestive hormones, get hungrier, and viola – eat more. Remember it takes about 20 minutes for your brain to recognise your stomach is full, you can do serious damage to your blood sugar in 20 minutes.

To overcome the above two issues:

  • Tune into your body to check if you are really hungry or if your body’s just reacting to the photo of the juicy burger with crisp salad. Can your stomach can really fit the last piece of chicken, or the rest of the packet of chips, or will you feel bloated afterwards?
  • Eat more slowly to give your brain and your stomach time to synch.When you’ve eaten, take time to appreciate the feeling of fullness.

Where You Are Affects How Much You Eat

Apparently if you do something that helps you ‘turn off ‘ while you’re eating, you’ll eat more than if you were actively engaged in conversation, have someone watching you, or just eating on your own and doing nothing else.

  • And you know how when you have a bowl of something on the table in front of you, say at your desk or at a conference, or while watching telly? Most people will eat more of it than food that is even just a little less convenient to eat, like on the table 2 metres away.
  • When you use bigger plates and spoons, you’ll eat more because you’ll serve yourself more.
  • When there’s more choice, (like at a buffet) you’re likely to eat more – apparently our biological urge to get a diverse range of food kicks in.
  • When the package size is bigger, we’ll eat more.
  • When the package size is shorter, but wider, we’ll eat and drink more than if it’s taller and thinner.
  • Mellow music, cool temperatures, and soft lighting makes you eat more – sound like your favourite restaurant? It’s not an accident 🙂

To overcome the above six issues:

  • Tune into your body to check if you really want the extra spoonful/handful/mouthful of whatever’s on offer. Make sure your body is comfortable at the table and that you have no distractions, that you’re just enjoying the food and possibly the company of family/friend/s.
  • Eat more slowly to savour the flavour and texture and incidentally, help activate your digestive system even more.

Sucked in by Health Claims (and other marketing tactics)

If we think food is low-fat we are likely eat more, up to 28% more in one study. Other health claims can cause us to eat up to 50% more!

And not only that, when people were asked to describe the health claims on packaging, they overestimated the health claims made by the manufacturer, claiming many more health benefits than the manufacturer did.

We’re also likely to have bigger portions of food we think is healthy.

What’s the difference between Patagonian Toothfish and Chilean Sea Bass? Chilean Sea Bass is so popular that it’s considered overfished. But just a few years ago when it was marketed as  Patagonian Toothfish, no one touched it! The power of suggestion (marketing) is immense. One study asked participants to rate the flavour of the stawberry yoghurt they were given – and they ate it in the dark. More than half of the testers said it had “good strawberry taste”, though the yoghurt was actually chocolate flavoured.

To overcome the above four issues:

  • Tune into your body: if your body enjoys Patagonian Toothfish, does it really matter what it’s called? Just be aware of marketing messages and what they’re really selling, and if your body will thrive or not on the food that’s being marketed to you, regardless of the health claims being made.
  • Eat more slowly. Eating more slowly lets you be mindful about the texture and quality of the food. When I eat chocolate this way, I only eat a few pieces because it’s just too sweet otherwise.

I should mention that the article had many more suggestions about how to trick yourself, including putting snacks in high places and using smaller plates and so on – I truly believe that allowing yourself to really listen to what your body wants and needs is all you really need to manage your portion sizes, your nutrional balance, and your health. Your weight will take care of itself.


  1. britt1 on October 3, 2010 at 4:05 pm

    I like theses practical suggestions.

    • Sandy on October 5, 2010 at 4:22 am

      Thanks Brittany, I hope they’re useful 🙂

  2. Donna on March 29, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Yesterday I bought some candy at the Farm & Home, while seed shopping. When I got it home I was going to put it out in a candy dish. Instead I tied the bag and put it in a kitchen drawer. I said aloud “this way I won’t just grab one whenever I walk by”. Good thinking on my part. Next step buying less. Yeah me!

    • Sandy on March 29, 2011 at 7:55 pm

      @Donna, that’s great management 🙂 Some techniques to reduce sugar cravings would be really helpful for you too.

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