Sunday, February 24, 2008

Why we Overeat - Are we Merely Products of our Environment?

You might surmise that eating is a conscious choice, but a recent publication from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that we may have little control over our eating habits. Study authors, Deborah A. Cohen, MD, MPH, and Thomas A. Farley, MD, MPH, discuss how overeating may be influenced by our environment. They describe why overeating should be viewed as an automatic response and not necessarily a conscious choice. Curbing the obesity epidemic might be more successful if we take a close look at the dynamics that surround eating.

The authors propose that by limiting food advertising, making pre-packaged foods less available to the public, reducing the amount of snack foods from vendors in schools and workplaces, and by limiting portions, we may find our “best hope for controlling the obesity epidemic.

When you look at automatic behaviors in general, the following points are made:

Humans are programmed for survival – if you put food in front of us we will eat.

We perceive features of our environment without even being aware. One example involved a study showing that when French music is played in a wine store, more French wine is sold. When German music is played, more German wine is sold. The concept is called priming, and the results can be profound, such as when we are primed to eat large portions and foods that are unhealthy.

People are not usually aware of how much they are eating. Surveys show that those who eat large portions have no conception that they’ve eaten more than someone who has eaten a normal sized meal.

Attempts at controlling our eating habits are found to be effective, but only short term. You can refuse to eat certain foods, but when you try to continue it becomes more difficult. Studies have shown that refusing food when others are eating is actually fatiguing. In one study, three groups of people were observed; one group ate cookies, one could only eat radishes, and one group was instructed not to eat. Afterwards, the group was given an unsolvable puzzle. The group who ate the cookies showed the greatest amount of perseverance. They quit after 21 minutes but the group who had no food gave up after only eight minutes. The conclusion is that refusing food takes a lot of mental effort.

We have a limited capacity for awareness. What we see and what we perceive on an unconscious level occurs at a rate of 11 million bits per second. Conscious processing occurs at a rate of only 40-60 bits per second. Routines are given low priority in our processing system, allowing our unconscious perceptions to remain dominant.

Past studies have supported the fact that eating should indeed be viewed as an automatic behavior.

Perhaps we can stop blaming ourselves for being overweight. It is easy to blame the obesity epidemic on a lack of personal responsibility, but perhaps the authors are right on target when they suggest that we should view eating as an automatic behavior. It certainly makes sense. We have come to accept most anything that is presented with a smile and it’s not always been to our advantage.

Mr. Box, I've got your number now. You've been priming me.

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