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6 Jedi Mind Tricks That Convince People To Eat Healthy

by | Oct 23, 2013

Photo by pasukaru76

The Jedi are famous for many things: lightsabers, telekinesis, making out with their sisters, and of course, mind tricks. Using the power of The Force, Jedi can exert seemingly magical control over the minds of people around them, getting unwitting participants to cooperate in anything the Jedi wants.

Fortunately, this skill is not restricted to the order of Jedi Knights. Even normal humans with average levels of midi-chlorians in our blood can harness this power of persuasion. The secret is understanding that most of the feelings people have about things are highly subjective, and vary depending on context.

This is especially true of food.

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10 Simple Ways To Eat Less Without Noticing

by | Oct 14, 2013

Photo by Idle Type

What you eat is important, but even healthy food can stop you from losing weight if you eat too much of it.

I never recommend extreme calorie restriction (most people aren’t very good at it anyway), but there are some tricks you can use to slightly reduce the amount of food you eat without feeling deprived, or even really noticing.

Your brain is easily fooled by shifts in perspective. It’s also more responsive to external cues like an empty plate, than internal cues like a full stomach. Understanding these influences can show you how to tilt them in your favor.

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3 Surprising Factors That Influence What (and how much) You Eat

by | Apr 4, 2012

Photo by ajleon

Andrianes Pinantoan is a psychology writer and editor for InformEd. You can follow him at his personal blog, Journey To Earth

We all like to think of ourselves as rational beings who are in control of everything we do. Yet study after study shows otherwise.

To illustrate this Dr. BJ Fogg, founder of Stanford University’s Persuasion Technology Lab, said that for a particular behaviour to occur, three things must happen at the same time: you must have the motivation to do something, you must have the ability to do it and you must be triggered to do it.

You probably already knew about motivations and ability, but did you know that if you have competing motivations (e.g. staying healthy vs eating junk food), the one that gets triggered wins?

What are triggers?

Darya wrote about this in Summer Tomato’s most popular post, 10 Simple Ways To Eat Less Without Noticing. In the post, she explains Brian Wansink’s work about how the size of your plate, distractions, and other external factors influence how much you eat. These external factors are called triggers because you don’t think about them consciously or rationally.

Here are three more environmental triggers that influence what (and how much) you eat, that few people consciously think about.

3 Surprising Factors That Influence What (and how much) You Eat

by Andrianes Pinantoan

1. Your friends

Researcher Solomon Asch once conducted a study on social influence. He found that if the someone is alone when asked to find an answer to a simple question, only 1 person out of 35 gets it wrong. But when a group of people are asked the question at the same time and some of them are planted to intentionally give wrong answers, 75% of all participants choose to ignore their eyes and give at least one wrong answer. That is a huge number, and demonstrates how powerful social pressure can be to influence your decisions.

A later study found that as your friends start to gain weight, so will you. And this is not just a case of birds of the same feather flocking together, this possibility was controlled for in the experiment.

If you intend to live a healthy lifestyle but you’re around people who eat chips on a daily basis, you’re constantly being triggered. These friends are not necessarily pressuring you into eating chips, but that doesn’t stop you from grabbing a handful yourself.

Luckily there is some good news: self-awareness can reduce the power of these triggers tremendously. Recognise that you are being triggered and choose a different, equally rewarding action to perform instead.

2. The media

“Who falls for this stuff?” my friend jeered. It was not a question. He was watching an ad for Mars and the voiceover was talking about how delicious the chocolate bar was.

It’s a classic case of the third-person effect. The third-person effect states that a person who is exposed to persuasive communication sees it as having a greater effect on others than on him or herself. And that, in turn, causes us to let our guards down.

What we assume, of course, is that advertisements are there to tell us about the benefits of the product. So if we tune that out, it should fade away.

But advertisements actually do more than this. They often associate the product with something you feel positively about like a celebrity, babies, love, respect, etc. And by forging that association, they can transfer the feelings you have from one thing to another. It’s what psychologists call affective conditioning.

But it’s not just advertisements you need to worry about in the media. News headlines are also crafted to be sensational. Psychologists now know that news triggers the emotional part of our brain, which is of course, largely uncontrollable. This is why when a newscaster talks about the latest and greatest diet, you inevitably feel an impulse to try it out.

When you are confronted with news or ads that sound promising or exciting, force yourself to go through the process of “considering the opposite.” Thinking about how likely it is that the news is wrong can help mitigate the good feelings you had initially for the information and weaken your subconscious attraction to the idea.

3. Packaging

Advertisements don’t end with the media, unfortunately. Another common form of advertisement that people simply don’t think of as advertisements is product packaging.

So effective is packaging at influencing our behaviour that, depending on which study you see, impulse purchases are responsible for 20% to 60% of our grocery shopping. And we all know that few of those impulse buys are for packageless broccoli or spinach.

Packaging can also influence our behaviour via the “halo effect.” The halo effect is a cognitive bias that makes us extrapolate the value of a particular trait over other traits of the same product. For example, people tend to perceive “organic” as good, so by labeling deep-fried chips as “organic” marketers can create the perception that they are healthy even though they have just as many calories as conventional chips. As a result, people consume more overall calories when a food is labelled with a health claim than when there is no label at all.

Being vigilant of how these environmental triggers are affecting your behavior can help you dampen their effects and make better choices.

What’s causing you to eat more than you realize?

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Book Review: Why We Get Fat, by Gary Taubes

by | Mar 2, 2011

I hadn’t planned on writing a formal review of Gary Taubes’ latest book, Why We Get Fat, because I already wrote an extensive review of his first book, Good Calories, Bad Calories, and the messages (and my criticisms) are basically the same. But after finishing the book I think Taubes is worth revisiting.

My biggest problem with Taubes’ first book is that it was very difficult to read, and that of course means most people won’t finish it. In Why We Get Fat Taubes repackages the data in a way that is much more logical and easy to digest. The book is substantially shorter, and is mostly free of the rants and tirades that peppered Good Calories, Bad Calories.

Instead, Why We Get Fat takes the reader through a clear and concise explanation of why all calories are not created equal, and that carbohydrates are the reason for the vast majority of the health and weight problems plaguing modern civilization. He also does a fantastic job demolishing the currently prevailing hypothesis that dietary fat and blood cholesterol are the causes of heart disease. They aren’t.

That so few people understand these points is why I recommend everyone read this book. It breaks my heart every time someone writes to me for nutrition advice and proudly points to their butter-less popcorn or baked chips as proof of their already “healthy” diet. Until it becomes common knowledge that fat is good for you and processed carbohydrates are the worst thing you can eat, I think this book is the best resource we have to explain it.

Still I do not agree 100% with Taubes’ conclusions. Though I do think the evidence is overwhelming that all calories are not created equal, I disagree that calories therefore do not matter and cannot be manipulated to help with weight loss. Taubes argues that how much we eat is dependent on our hormone levels (specifically insulin levels) that regulate energy balance, and that depending on this balance we naturally regulate our feeding and energy expenditure (exercise) so that we maintain our weight.

Taubes makes a compelling case that severe calorie restriction is counterproductive in weight management, and I agree. However there is some evidence that a small calorie deficit, on the order of 100-200 calories per day, is within the range of our natural homeostatic mechanisms and can be effective at controlling body weight.

In his book, Why We Eat More Than We Think (another must-read), Brian Wansink explores study after study where environmental cues are manipulated to get people to eat either significantly more, or significantly less than they believed. Importantly, the participants never reported any difference in satiation no matter how much they ate. Wansink argues that people can make small dietary changes resulting in a moderate 100-200 calorie per day deficit that does not affect hunger levels and can be used to effectively control weight.

Similarly, in The End of Overeating (here’s my review) Dr. David Kessler discusses how eating can become uncoupled from hunger when it is associated with external cues, making a strong case that some of us really do eat more than we need to. I think many of Kessler’s points about overeating are valid, particularly for emotional eaters. His argument is further strengthened by individual case studies of people who learn to eat less without experiencing sensations of starvation that are predicted by Taubes. One such example is Frank Bruni’s book Born Round (my review), in which he overcomes his weight struggles by moving to Italy and changing his relationship with food. Bruni is able to maintain his weight even after accepting the job of food critic at the New York Times.

These accounts conflict with Taubes’ argument that people overeat to satisfy a caloric deficit caused by a carbohydrate-induced faulty metabolism. Though there is good reason to believe Taubes’ metabolic hypothesis accounts for a large part of the health issues in today’s society, I think it is premature to conclude that this is the only force at work in why we get fat. Indeed, some research suggests learned feeding cues can directly impact insulin and metabolic pathways even in the absence of food. This data does not refute Taubes’ hypothesis, but rather makes it more complicated than he implies.

Even if we assume Taubes’ metabolic theory accounts for the majority of our health problems, insulin response (the ultimate cause of fat accumulation) should also be affected by eating rate and exercise, and vary among individuals. However Taubes handedly dismisses the possibility that any behavioral modification other than carbohydrate restriction can impact metabolic function because, he argues, we will modify our physical activity to adjust for any nutritional changes. His case is compelling, but not air tight, and my interpretation is that while carbohydrate consumption is clearly very important, there are likely other factors that may also be helpful in controlling metabolism and body weight.

In his book The 4-Hour Body (my review), Tim Ferriss describes how WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg lost 18 pounds by simply chewing each bite of food 20 times. Extra chewing or “masticating” was made popular as a weight loss technique in the late 1800s by Horace Fletcher and is explored in Gina Kolata’s book Rethinking Thin (not a particularly good read). Extended chewing and eating slowly are both effective at inducing weight loss, likely because they slow the glycemic response and almost always result in decreased meal size.

One of the most interesting points made in The 4-Hour Body was Ferriss’ personal glycemic response to a low-carbohydrate diet of just meat and vegetables. He claims that even with this meal he could easily spike his glucose to over 150 mg/dL (this is very high) by simply eating quickly, and that this effect could be controlled by slowing down and taking a full 30 minutes to finish a meal. Unfortunately I could not find a similar experiment in the scientific literature, but Ferriss’ observation suggests that behavioral modification can have a powerful impact on metabolic response independent of diet composition.

My final complaint about Why We Get Fat is that Taubes never considers that individual variation may preclude his theory from applying to everyone. He suggests that while some people are genetically blessed with a higher tolerance for carbohydrates, others will only thrive on an almost zero carbohydrate diet. Unfortunately this is the one part of the book he does not provide data to back up his assertions.

Though Taubes frequently argues the importance of paying attention to outliers, he never explores the possibility that some individuals may actually do better (rather than less bad) on a diet with slightly more carbohydrates. (Let’s assume for now that I mean slowly digesting, natural carbohydrates and not highly processed sugars and grains.) In a healthy person there is no reason to assume that such a diet would induce insulin resistance, and there may be some additional advantage outside of metabolic health for including such foods. I don’t think this is a possibility we should dismiss without solid evidence.

To summarize, Taubes does an excellent job describing the importance of carbohydrates in both weight management and health but oversimplifies the science, particularly neglecting the importance of behavioral factors on metabolism. However, the analysis presented in Why We Get Fat is still the most clear explanation of the relationship between metabolism and health that I’ve found and is an invaluable resource for the general public.

What did you think of Taubes’ latest book?

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