You are in a strange town and looking for a restaurant. In a street of many choices how do you pick? Perhaps you choose the one which is the busiest? “They can’t all be wrong”. That may be a good way of having an enjoyable evening but beware you waistline. It turns out we eat more calories in crowded settings!
Crowding and Calories.
A team of researchers took the lunch time till receipts from a busy casual restaurant. They were able to look at menu choices and how many people were in the restaurant at the time. It turned out that the more crowded the restaurant the more calories the customers ate. Worse still they did not eat more of the healthy food. Instead they ate the same number of items but chose items with more calories.
They extended their study to try and understand the reason this was happening. The logic was pretty clear. The increased number of people increased the amount of distraction. The distraction switched customers to “autopilot” decision making. This is a problem because we do not eat only to keep our bodies going. We gain lots of gratification from eating. In other Newsletters we have seen that we will often eat on autopilot. We will eat ninety percent more soup from a bowl being secretly refilled from the bottom. With no conscious decision making there is no “voice” warning us about calories and healthy eating.
For the restaurant owners having you walk into a busy evening session has a double benefit. They will get the bill from your meal. Also it seems everyone in the restaurant will eat more! The owner hopes they will chose more expensive, calorie rich dishes. At some point there is a problem. Psychologically there is a difference between physical density of people and crowding. We cope well with density. Crowding by comparison destroys satisfaction. It can produce physiological symptoms of stress.
Density becomes crowding when we lose control. Control is a deep seated need. We all want to feel in control of the world around us. If the density interferes with our ability to get around in the restaurant it becomes crowding. If it interferes with our personal space it becomes crowding. If things appear to be “out of control” or unpredictable they can become stressful. Given any declines in mind, body and senses with age, are we more likely to feel out of control?
Eating and Watching Television
One of the scourges of old age is loneliness. Peoples’ social networks breakdown. They may be less mobile. People spend more time alone. They turn to television for comfort. Television can be as much a distraction as a crowd. Eating in front of the TV increases the amount of calories you consume. A recent study went further to explore how this happens.
We stop eating because of internal signals we get from the body. We may become “fed-up” of the sensation of eating a particular food. Snacking on too many nuts or eating too much chocolate. Alternatively, our body can signal that we are full. We are no longer hungry. Distraction in the form of TV can stop us from noticing these signals.
An alternative view is that eating and TV have become associated in our minds, often through habit. Watching TV would then stimulate a desire for food. Finally eating might be mood related. The TV program puts us into a positive mood. That mood means that we eat more.
Through a series of elegant laboratory experiments, the researchers tried to unpick these causes. These included asking students to watch an episode of “Friends” with snacks. These included Maltesers; Skittles; almonds and crisps or potato chips. They also completed questionnaires before and after the session. The results suggests that all four mechanisms might be at work.
When fed only one type of snack participants did tire more quickly. The sensation of eating that particular food did pall. TV reduced that effect. With many different snacks the people did not tire. TV still depressed the signal that they were full and no longer needed to eat. It increased the amount of calories needed to trigger that sensation. The distraction effect was clear in both cases.
People who grew up watching TV, and particularly when eating, ate more. ( A lesson for those still bringing up children or grandchildren). Other studies have shown that this has a long run impact on eating habits. Those who enjoyed the Friends’ episode and claimed to be in a better mood ate more.
Distraction and the Autopilot
It seems that autopilot or mindless eating is bad for our waistlines. If we choose food while in autopilot mode we do it without constraint. Distraction can trigger autopilot decision making. At the same time distraction supresses the normal bodily signals that stop us from eating more. Music, and particularly loud music, has a similar effect. So too can the temperature (see Newsletter # 076 “Too Hot to Think”). Even dining with a group of friends can distract us enough that we eat more (see Newsletter #37 “Over-indulging this Christmas”).
Loneliness is one of the plagues of old age. Of course it is not restricted to older people. The television can distract us from it. Unfortunately it can also distract us from how much we are eating. Given TV watching is a very sedentary pastime the result is an unhealthy body mass index. There are now more people on the planet who are clinically obese than malnourished. In fact there are 200m more!
Are older people more prone to these distractions? There is little direct evidence. It would be a logical conclusion. We compensate sub-consciously for any loss of senses through perceptual completion. Our memory may not fail but at what cost of mental energy? Are our subconscious brains working harder pre-distraction?