Americans are no strangers to counting calories. We continue to push for more transparency around what we eat, through efforts like government-mandated posting in restaurant chains. And with more data, we hope we can convince our brains to eat healthier.
Neuroscientist Rachel Herz believes we can actually grow numb to this type of information. According to one study, she says, posting calories in restaurants made a slight impact, though these effects faded quickly. But, another study did show something that was able to alter buyers’ long-term behavior. It found that instead of displaying calorie counts, posting the number of miles you’d need to walk to burn off a soda shaped consumer choices.
“That was the most effective in terms of changing people’s behavior so that they bought less soda, more water,” says Herz, who teaches at Brown University. She is also the author of the new book, Why You Eat What You Eat: The Science Behind Our Relationship with Food.
We can be fooled in other ways, too. When we digest food, our metabolism rises to burn off calories. In one study, people who thought they were drinking a higher-calorie milkshake burned more calories than those who thought it had fewer calories — even though it was the same milkshake.
In short, the study shows our body’s metabolism can succumb to a giant placebo effect.
“We can be tricked with labels that tell us about calories and indulgence and sort of sumptuousness of what we’ve eaten,” Herz says.
And there are other ways our brain can trick us. The Delboeuf Illusion, for example, changes our perception of portions. A scoop of mashed potatoes on a small plate can make the portion seem relatively generous. But if that same scoop of potatoes is put on a big plate, Herz says, you perceive the big plate as containing less food. That means you’re more likely to go back for seconds, even if you ate the same amount the first time around.
Our willpower to stop eating can be worn down, as well. If you’re working on a demanding project that requires a lot of brainpower, Herz explains, you might be less likely to resist a late-night cookie. Conversely, if you spend a relaxing night watching a movie, you’ll probably have a better chance of grabbing something a little healthier.
“It seems as if there’s this sort of limited amount of resource we have at any one given moment, and if it’s too divided, then our willpower is probably going to be the one thing that falls off,” Herz says.
Knowing how our brains respond to food can also help you at work. Even for those who don’t have a sweet tooth, eating a little sugar makes us feel happier and nicer. If you need a little extra support in a meeting — and want to encourage people to agree with you — Herz recommends bringing some candy.
“It actually does make us, at least temporarily, somewhat more agreeable with other people,” she says.
Above all, Herz recommends eating everything in moderation, and not putting too much stock in the hot new medical advice, which always seems to be changing.
“Take it with a grain of salt,” she says.