The Psychology of Food and Dieting
Most of us want to eat healthy. We wake up in the morning and think "today I will only make healthy choices, and I will avoid sweets." Somehow that never seems to work. Part of the reason for this is that some people have no self-control and will eat anything that is put in front of them (ME), but there are ways that the food industry itself can influence us and encourage us to make unhealthy choices with foods. One of the worst offenders happens to be one of my favorites: The Cheesecake Factory, pictured below.
Subtle Restaurant Tricks
There are really a wide range of ways that we as consumers can misperceive food. Many of these tricks are found in restaurants, but it is important to be aware of them in almost any food environment.
Some restaurants have begun placing calorie counts next to foods, which is actually very helpful for consumers. However, there is a problem with this and it is that just because a food is low-calorie does not mean that it is healthy at all. But simply seeing the calorie counts of foods on a menu gently encourages people to make lower-calorie choices.
Unless a restaurant segments foods within the menu into "regular" and "healthy" sections. When all "healthy" options are listed together in the same section, consumers are happy because they are aware of this section and know that they have it as an option, but they then are more likely to consume from the regular menu. To actually influence choices in a positive way, menus should not separate healthy from unhealthy options because the separation allows people to consider them separately.
This is one of the more subtle ways that we are influenced by our surroundings. I've always had theories as to why restaurants operate in certain ways, but now I have an explanation.
Have you ever noticed that restaurants are often quite cold? I always thought that it was to make you uncomfortable and leave faster, but the reality is that because food and alcohol create a warming sensation, cold temperatures actually encourage us to eat more!
Lights have an equally large effect. Dim and warm lights tend to help relax us, which encourages us to think less and eat more and more slowly. Bright lights have the opposite effect.
I am always annoyed with TVs in restaurants, but they too serve a purpose. TVs distract us and slow us down, which makes us spend more time sitting. This in turn causes us to actually spend more time (and money) eating.
There are two ways that food itself can be the thing that tricks us. The first is that the texture of food influences whether or not we think that it is healthy. We assume that crunchier more texturized foods are healthier than soft and chewy foods. The reason is that we believe that crunchier things are less processed and closer to nature. The perfect example of this is Clif bars. I always thought that Clif bars were healthy and I would eat them often while exercising; part of what attracted me to the bars was their rough texture. But it turns out that eating a Clif bar is almost as bad as eating a Snickers! On the other hand, soft and chewy Lara bars are actually better for you!
The other food related trick is that fast food restaurants that include "healthy" options actually influence us to make unhealthier choices. For example, when McDonalds began offering salads in the mid-2000s, people actually ate more Big Macs. The reason for this is that when we think about the difference between healthy and unhealthy foods, we expend energy
doing something good for us. This makes us actually feel more health-conscious, which makes us more likely to reward ourselves with a Big Mac!