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Summertime and the livin’ is easy…” says the song. Summertime is also holiday time and therefore also the period of excessive eating and drinking and consequently our greatest weight gain. 

I wrote last week about food psychology and the many research studies being undertaken to help us understand our eating behaviour. Jim Thornton, in a June 2007 Men’s Health article, explained it well: “Most men think, if we think about it at all, that the urge to eat is simple. We become hungry, we seek food, we shovel some into our maws, we feel full, we stop. After a suitable interlude the cycle starts anew. But hunger and satiety are not the only reasons we start and stop eating. Researchers have pinpointed a complex web of cues in the modern environment that all but overwhelm our once adaptive systems: societal shifts in what constitutes appropriate portion sizes; the colours, embedded scents and promotional language used in food packaging; the distracting effects of TV viewing during meals. These are just a few of the ubiquitous hidden persuaders that have converted eating from a natural human need into a national hobby.”  

It is therefore important, I think, that we become au fait with some of the research in order to prepare ourselves to do battle with the spectre of obesity and overeating. A good place to start is what is called the “French Paradox”. Everyone knows that the French are obsessed with food, and belong to an indulgent food culture in which fatty cheeses, decadent desserts and buttery pastries are daily habits, yet the number of overweight individuals is low compared to, say, Americans. 

Initially it was thought that this was due to the fact that the French ate smaller portions at meals compared to Americans, but research published in the Journal of Obesity indicates the French stop eating when they feel full. Americans, on the other hand, stop eating when they’ve cleaned their plate, when everyone else at the table is finished or when the TV show they are watching is over. In other words, the French rely on internali cues (“I feel full”) while the American rely on external ones (“the show’s not over yet, pass me another fried chicken wing”). Put simply, reliance on external cues leads to greater food consumption. It would therefore help if you paid attention to what you are eating and learn to recognise what your body is saying to prevent overeating.  

A great deal of research has gone into analysing how the ambience of a restaurant affects our food consumption. Ever notice how bright and noisy fast food franchises are? That’s because bright light, loud noises and reflective surfaces, for reasons not yet fully understood, cause us to eat faster. A fast food franchise needs you to eat and bugger off. And did you notice how McDonald’s, Nando’s and KFC all use the colour red prominently?  

According to Dr Lesley Harrington, an expert who advises food manufacturers on ways to leverage the psychological effects of colour, bright red stimulates our appetites, increases adrenaline and blood pressure and makes us physically want to move.  

On the other hand, expensive restaurants need you to stay as long as possible and order more. These establishments also use red, but tone it down to a softer burgundy with comfortable seating, muted lighting and soothing music.  

Another expert, Professor Brian Wansink, suggests using the same tactics at home: we should turn off the TV, play soft music, serve food at the table, use our best china and dim the lights: “Even broccoli tastes better by candlelight,” he says. In a study published in the British Medical Journal in 2005 it was found that college students consistently poured 30% more alcohol into short, wide glasses versus tall, narrow ones. This is because we have a built-in tendency to focus on height rather than width when assessing a container’s volume. So at home replace your glassware with highball glasses and you will drink less. Guaranteed.  

Other research has found that the size of plates, bowls, mugs, sweet dishes and snack bowls affect how much we eat. The larger the plate, the smaller the portion looks, which invariably leads to overeating. It’s a perceptional distortion.  

Lockhat is resident psychologist at Men’s Health magazine 

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