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Wed July 31, 2013
How Subtle Factors Influence Our Eating
Originally published on Wed July 31, 2013 2:54 pm
A growing body of evidence suggests that subtle factors — things we’re not even aware of — influence our food choices. Everything from how our mothers ate when we we were in the womb, to what sorts of smells or noises are in the background while we dine.
NPR food and health correspondent Allison Aubrey joins us to discuss some of the latest research in this field.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
But when it comes to our eating habits, there is sometimes a disconnect between our intentions, what we intend to eat and what we really end up putting in our mouths. This week, the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior is meeting in New Orleans discussing some new research that shows there might be some science behind those choices that starts when we're in the womb. In other words, maybe it's not all our fault. NPR's food and health correspondent Allison Aubrey joins us now to talk about this. Hi, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Hi there, Jeremy. Good to be here.
HOBSON: Good to have you. So in the womb?
AUBREY: That's right. Researchers are finding that what happens during gestation can be actually quite significant. And one paper finds that when newborn rat pups are underfed during gestation, they tend to have this heightened or increased response to the taste of sugar when they're born, suggesting that there is a sort of fetal programming that goes on. And in studies of people, there's also some evidence that under-nutrition during gestation along with other stressful experiences may lead to a stronger preference for sugar and fatty foods.
HOBSON: So perhaps that stuff starts very young. What about just temptation? I mean we all get tempted when we are around food, we decide we want something and we've got to eat it.
AUBREY: That's right. One study that's being presented comes from researchers at the University of Leeds in the U.K. and they wanted to test the power of smell. So what they did was to give a bunch of women two different foods to smell. There's chocolate, and there's fresh oranges. And what they find is that the women who were overweight ended up eating about 60 percent less chocolate after smelling the oranges compared to when they smelled chocolate. So the suggestion here is that smell can be a powerful cue or prompt to sort of nudge people to the better choice.
HOBSON: So they smell the oranges, and then they didn't want as much chocolate?
AUBREY: That's right. So, you know, maybe in an office setting, this could be a useful strategy. I don't know. You know, you could keep an orange or fruit at your desk. And then when someone's passing around the salt water taffy or the chocolate or whatever they're bringing back from their great vacation, you can have something to help you, you know, say, no, thank you. I've got an alternative here.
HOBSON: Yeah. I don't know what this does, really, for that person at the office who always has some microwave popcorn going in the afternoon, but we'll leave that for another show.
AUBREY: That's right.
HOBSON: What about sound? We hear that this is also a factor, that noise can influence how much we eat.
AUBREY: Yeah. It's interesting. A couple of years ago, I reported on some really interesting research that shows that the louder it gets in a dining room, the more people lose their perception of saltiness and sweetness. So, in other words, noise may blunt our responses and sort of make us unaware, less aware of what we're eating.
HOBSON: So perhaps we should keep things quiet when we eat.
AUBREY: You know, I don't know. Maybe that's not a bad strategy, to sort of eat quietly, eat mindfully.
HOBSON: Well, of course, Allison, the big concern out there right now is about how to get kids - young people, in particular - set on the right path from a very young age when it comes to healthy eating. So do these studies help us figure that out at all?
AUBREY: Well, you know, I think it's a harder question to answer. It's certainly is something that researchers have looked at. For instance, there are studies suggesting that, you know, if you keep introducing young children, toddlers to foods that are bitter and aren't naturally as appealing as foods that are sugary, that you have a better chance - despite constantly exposing these kids to vegetables and things - that they'll adopt healthier eating habits.
But what's really interesting here is that there's even research showing that what women eat during pregnancy may, indeed, shape food preferences of children. For example, there's a research showing that the flavors of things a pregnant mom eats - whether it be garlic or carrots - can be passed to the baby in the womb via amniotic fluid. Researchers say the idea here is that there may be a memory forming very early in life that could have subtle influences.
HOBSON: So I guess my mom must have loved mint chocolate chip ice cream.
AUBREY: Oh, is that your favorite?
HOBSON: That's my favorite.
AUBREY: You'll have to ask her about that one.
HOBSON: Allison Aubrey, NPR's food and health correspondent. Thanks, as always.
AUBREY: Thank you, Jeremy.
HOBSON: And coming up, some comments from listeners about yesterday's conversation with a data-driven mom. Also, what's going on between Harry Belafonte and Jay-Z? You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.