Are we all just food-selecting zombies?

20 Sep

It was a Saturday afternoon- I spent all morning writing one of my dissertation articles. It was unfortunate that i had to be on campus instead of enjoying my morning coffee at home, but some syncing error got me panicking as I couldn’t find my latest saved draft.. So here I was with only 25 minutes before my aerial fitness class: I made a quick stop at an empty campus store, grabbed something to eat and rushed out to my car, still deeply pensive over some changes I should make- I am writing about lay interpretations of healthy eating context.

I looked down to see what it is I was holding in my hand, because it seemed like i made my snack choice in some auto-pilot mode: fullsizerender-20

OK, it made sense. Considering the context. And then I thought- I just spent 4 hours writing up my article on healthful eating beliefs.. how would I go about finding out what rationale was behind my food selection right now?

I pretended to ask myself in an interview format- “why did you choose these items?”- and immediately imagined a word cloud of my transcribed answer: there was a whole bunch of stuff there, but several most salient words stood out: calories, protein, satiety, light. The transcribed text would read:

…so I was not starving yet, but it was almost 1pm and I had an intensive aerial class that I anticipated i’d want energy for… i needed to feel full but not physically full (so, light)- can’t eat anything big before hanging upside down on the aerial hoop! I know protein is satiating, and I like this bar because it’s damn delicious (i’m aware of the halo effect that “protein” has in this situation – extrapolating the “goodness” of protein to unrelated product characteristics, such as it’s overall healthiness… it’s really just a candy bar! but the health claims on the package do pacify the guilt splendidly). I also know that sweetness may provoke hunger on it’s own, so I have to balance the taste with the umami-ness of string cheese. This combo is also just about 300 calories, which is my upper limit for a snack (I gage it, though I know i’m exactly on point with the number despite not checking the nutrition label)… I don’t really count calories- I think it’s not a helpful behavior and one can become fixated on it, which might get detrimental for your dietary quality. Yet I also can’t help being somewhat vigilant- I know eating gets more “fun” later in the day, so I want to leave enough of an energetic allowance to indulge in my evening netflix/playstation time. Calories definitely matter- i’m so tired of people’s hopeful attempts to fight this truth and discover a loophole in the first law of thermodynamics. Sure, there are nuances- cooking and processing can change the availability of calories to your body, but those are just nuances to me- at least that’s my current stance based on the literature.

Wow, that’s a whole lot of rationale for an “auto-pilot” choice that took 20 seconds without conscious effort. Of course, eating perceptions and choices are my research topic, so I am quick to self-reflect in detail. Yet for many respondents, who hold their own complex mental models of healthy eating, this can be like pulling teeth- it’s not easy to explain things that seem obvious or natural to us (unless maybe you’re writing a dissertation on it). My reasons are good examples of cognitive heuristics- “rules of thumb” used to make choices in complex situations, such as eating (we make about 200 eating decisions daily, according to Dr. Wansink- too lazy to give you the specific study name.. just google it 🙂 ) The “Protein- satiety- good” connection is a simple heuristic, the “power” and “energy” words on the bar signaled appropriateness of this snack before a workout, the familiarity of the products (I know this bar and it’s taste; bought it before) also played a role.

But anyway: I’m almost done writing my first chapter now. I’m in the process of shortening it actually……… by about 10,000 words :S It’s such a painful process to let go of your findings- perhaps I’ll post a bunch of interesting results here in the coming months! I could be sporadically posting cool quotes on twitter or Instagram too, but honestly- that’d get attention of maybe 10 people. Meanwhile my latest quick sketch of a friend pulling off an aerial trick just got more than 1000 likes… So forcing myself to tweet the dissertation is lacking in motivation at the moment. In the meantime- enjoy whatever it is you might be eating right now! Don’t overanalyze it, I suppose?

UPDATE:

I stopped by the campus store on this fine “dissertating” morning, and got the protein bar again + another item to illustrate my previous point. This probably won’t shock anyone, but i’d say i was quite correct in stating 2 days earlier “it’s really just a candy bar!”

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The protein bar’s serving size says “1 COOKIE”. Cookie! Kit Kat has the decency to refer to itself as 1 package 😀 Surely, both are just candies.

At least if you consider the energy content and, really, majority of ingredients (i will admit- “monk fruit” sounds mysteriously awesome, though it is the last ingredient (so there’s like a trace amount of it).

Now, obviously there’s a difference- and that’s the difference that drives the high price point of the protein bar (as well as it’s healthiness message): the power bar has more protein (13 g vs. 3) and less sugars (5g vs 21g). On another hand, the power bar has a bit more saturated fat and cholesterol. That last point is most likely less relevant to an average reader- so far, my interviews and surveys show people vilify sugar much more than fat (again, you’re probably not shocked and i’m definitely not the first one to notice- the low fat fad is over, it’s been all about the horror of carbs for awhile).

Now, protein appears to be more satiating than sugar, according to a bunch of studies (go check out Google Scholar), so perhaps you indeed might eat more later after the Kit Kat, despite eating the same amount of calories as from the Power Bar. And something like that can be tested in a nicely designed experimental study (probably has been). Despite all of this, next time i make a quick stop at the store, i’ll probably still reach for the  Power Crunch bar. Buying a Kit Kat is too bizarre- I  don’t eat candy! And though i know the bar is really just another candy- well,  it just leads to less cognitive dissonance 😛

 

 

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One Response to “Are we all just food-selecting zombies?”

  1. Vlad vizireanu September 20, 2016 at 6:25 am #

    Love this blog!!

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