According to nutritionists, I’m clueless, and so are you. And the nutritionists may have a point.
The average North American believes he or she makes 15 to 35 decisions about food a day. But scientists who measure them say we make 225.
“Given that people so dramatically underestimate the number of food-related decisions they make in a day,” one study has concluded, “it is not unfair to say we often engage in mindless eating.” The consequences are anything but mindless: weight gain (200 unintended calories a day can yield 20 extra pounds a year), high blood pressure, diabetes and all the other dreaded offspring of what food scientists call our “obesigenic lifestyle.”
And so I thought: I’ll keep a diary of every food decision I make in a day. There can’t be that many, I told myself, and certainly no unconscious ones. And if I am eating mindlessly, recording a day’s intake will bring my bad habits to light, right? Right?
Wrong. So, so wrong.
How soon can I have coffee? This is my brain’s first bleary desire. I’ll save precious minutes if I flip the electric kettle on before I shower.
Breakfast is a three-way standoff. Will it be fresh ricotta cheese on a slice of cranberry focaccia, overlayed with sliced kiwi and a drizzled tablespoon (okay, two) of maple syrup? A slice of multigrain toast and half a grapefruit? Neither. This morning I seem to want the slim knife of deprivation, of non-fat yogurt. I throw out some black figs melting in the fruit bowl, but notice darkening bananas beneath them. A possibility, but not yet a decision.
Open the fridge for yogurt, see ricotta, long for ricotta, nothing would give more pleasure than pale glistening ricotta, but somehow hold out for yogurt. That’s two decisions, not one. I spy some freshly cut pineapple, mmm, pineapple. But no. Another decision. The bananas are rotting, they need to be eaten.
A whole banana, or a half? Half is my regimen when I eat a banana, which is not as often as I should because bananas lack juice. I love juice. But these bananas are pipsqueak: If they’re four inches long, I’m a monkey’s uncle. Still, half is plenty. As I debate half vs. whole, I inadvertently peel the entire banana and slice it into my yogurt. An unconscious call.
Honey in the yogurt? Nutrition Action says North Americans eat too much honey. Splenda?
In the course of fetching the Splenda I spot a container of candied ginger. Candied ginger! Yes! In the yogurt! But I have already added the Splenda. My sadness is bottomless.
Hunger originates in the parts of the human brain that developed first, notably the amygdala and the hippocampus, which create emotions and memories – bad news for anyone trying to eat rationally. The amygdala may be one reason why half the snack food people buy in bulk at warehouse clubs is consumed within six days. We eat when we can, not only when we need to.
I realize I have finished my breakfast, and am licking the bowl.
I want more breakfast. But no.
How many food decisions so far? Thirty-odd, by my count. Brian Wansink, the head of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab and one of the first scientists to theorize that the brain makes food decisions all day long, claims what we eat is only one decision. There is also how much (a fresh decision with each bite), when, where, and with whom. Multiply those five decisions by the number of times you consume a meal, snack or beverage, and 250 decisions is conceivable.
But I don’t think of eating for the next two hours – save when I drive by the Chinese dumpling stand on my way to work. I drive by it every day. I think about its Chinese dumplings every day.
Peckish. Should I have a scone? Yes, no, yes, no.
Cheese or raisin scone? By now I’m in the cafeteria (ding ding ding, decision!). I prefer raisins, but cheese is all that’s left. The scone is a mistake, nutritionally and calorifically, but also the perfect antidote to office anxiety/panic/boredom. Another element of the scone’s appeal, I suddenly realize, is that it’s the size of a softball. It’s good value! This is what Wansink, who is also the author of the bestselling Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, would call an unconscious food decision.
Wansink is the latest model of food researcher, the kind who believes environmental factors – the “foodscape” – influence our intake as much as physical cravings, genetic predispositions and our efforts to suppress our appetites.
In a now-famous series of experiments, Wansink fed subjects from a soup bowl that secretly refilled as they ate. They ate an average of 73 per cent more than usual, though the majority insisted they couldn’t have – the bowl was still half full! (Clueless.) He also says if you use a 91/2-inch dinner plate instead of an 11-incher, you’ll eat 22 per cent less.
I see the time, and naturally think about lunch. Decision.
The concept of lunch reoccurs for the third time. A sausage in a bun? Too much meat. A fish sandwich? The halibut up the street is good but costs $17. Perhaps soup and a salad from the cafeteria.
The cafeteria, like most cafeterias, has the charm of the trunk of my car. Rejected: aromatic roasted chicken leg, vegetable quesadilla, tuna wrap. Accepted: tuna/egg salad on lettuce, with soup (large or small? Chicken or asparagus?).
Still hungry. But I will not eat. Another admirable decision.
Longing for an oatmeal cookie. It’s oatmeal, it must be healthy. Clueless! It’s the size of a crop circle in Saskatchewan.
Still longing for the cookie. To quash my longings, I call Cendri Hutcherson, a California Institute of Technology neuro-economist. (They study how the brain makes decisions.) Earlier this year, she uncovered evidence that more than one neural system comes into play when the brain makes a food choice.
According to Hutcherson, the smell and sight and memory of the oatmeal cookie registers in my amygdala, which sends a message to my ventromedial prefrontal cortex. Because I habitually eat oatmeal cookies mid-afternoon, my rapidly processing vmPFC (as the scientists call it) sends the message to snack away. The older the habit, the faster the message.
But if I have recently read a gripping account of how daily oatmeal cookies make for bun-like love handles, my more thoughtful dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (dlPFC), located behind my temples, may get involved. “Wait!” it might cry. “Nix the cookie, fat boy!”
At that point, after a struggle that can last several seconds, Hutcherson told me, “your brain might allow your dlPFC to control your brain.” But it takes a while to get the dlPFC neurons firing. In other words, wait.
I buy and inhale the cookie. Neuroeconomists still don’t understand why our brains cave and eat. Compared to controlling my impulses, then, managing my food environment seems like a breeze. “There’s nothing we can do about the amygdala,” Wansink notes. “There are things we can do about consumption patterns.”
Now that I know this, restrained eating will be a no-brainer. I celebrate with a diet Coke.
Sadly, at the movies, having eaten no dinner, it’s more than I can do to fight off my desire for a small bag of popcorn – which is actually six cups worth, about 1,200 calories.
Brainwave: I’ll have a hot dog instead.
Damn my overactive ventromedial prefrontal cortex and the pernicious multiplex food fair! I have now inhaled the hot dog, a large diet orange pop, and half the popcorn. No butter, though: I’m a guy who can control his impulses.
Which must be why, when a friend asks if I’d like to meet him for a beer on the way home, I do. And why, when he asks if I’d like to share a pizza, and then eats only three slices, I eat the other five. Only 80 food decisions noticed all day, and I’ve eaten a third again as much as I planned. I can’t wait until Christmas.