Editor's note: This article placed first in our inaugural Scientista DiscovHER science writing competition. Scientista would like to congratulate Amy Chan on her achievement and welcome her to our team of regular bloggers!
By Amy Chan
Paleo? Atkins? FODMAP diet? If those don’t take your fancy – then how about the Werewolf diet? Weight loss and diets seem to plague us no matter where we look. Google ads, Facebook pop ups, Twitter feeds – the topic of food and weight is never far from our lips…or perhaps our hips for that matter. Obesity struggle is a real and global one. The World Health Organisation reports a doubling in worldwide obesity since 1980, with 50% of people in the WHO European region overweight and another 23% of women and 20% of men obese. Recent research suggests that obesity may be deadlier than previously thought – with 18% of all deaths in the US accounted for by obesity (1). But the good news is, new fad diets seem to appear as fast as the obesity epidemic grows, infesting our social networks each time we refresh our feeds – and they’re all just a click away.
And indeed, it is tempting. With the abundance of food around us 24/7, and the ever-growing fast food industry, it is easy to look for a simple solution to a weighty problem. How great would it be to eat anything you wanted, anything at all, without having to worry about the extra pounds that might pile on. This calls for new measures beyond fad diets. Perhaps science is the answer. If science informs all our other choices – from car design to human relationships – then maybe we can apply science to food too?
Gastrophysics is the term used to describe how physical science relates to cooking or gastronomy or loosely, food physics. Oxford University has a team of scientists looking at how we perceive food through our senses, and how that perception can be changed by simple physical things such as plate colour and shape. For example, dessert served on a round white plate tastes sweeter and more intense in flavor than when served on a square or black plate. The authors describe “food as theatre” – a multisensory experience that goes beyond just flavor perception on our tongues, to an entire experience involving all the senses. This is because the process of flavor perception actually involves our brains – right from the beginning when we build up an expectation about the meal – to the final actual tasting of the food. The brain processes involved are actually very complex and there is a whole scientific discipline – neurogastronomy – dedicated to this. Who knew there would be so much thinking involved when we eat? Definitely food for thought…or perhaps we mean thought for food?
Betina Piqueras-Fiszman has been the forefront of much of this research, co-authoring a book – “The Perfect Meal: The Multisensory Science of Food and Dining” – all about the different factors that can affect the way food is experienced. One of studies she designed looked at how the weight of the container holding the food can affect how full we feel (2). She asked 45 people to evaluate a strawberry yogurt sample – one served in a “light” bowl, and one in a “heavy” bowl weighing 75 grams heavier. Whilst holding these bowls, the participants had to answer two questions: First, they were shown photos of different foods (pasta, crackers, cookies and grapes) and they had to guess how much of each they would need to eat to feel the same amount of fullness as eating the yogurt sample. Second, after having a spoonful of the yogurt from each bowl, they had to rate how thick the yogurt was, and which yogurt would make them feel fuller.
When looking at the comparison foods, their mind simply acted like a weighing balance. Participants felt they would need to eat more pasta, crackers, cookies and grapes to get the same amount of fullness from the yogurt when held in the “heavy” bowl. The opposite occurred when they held the yogurt in the “light” bowl. In other words, they expected food from a heavier container to be more filling than from a lighter one.
Over 70% rated the yogurt as thicker in the “heavy” bowl, than when the sample was served in the “light” bowl, and said they would feel fuller after eating the yogurt served in the heavier bowl. What’s even more interesting though, is not only did they expect to be fuller when eating from the heavier bowl, they also ended up feeling fuller. Again, the yogurt from the heavier bowl was more satiating than from the lighter one.
These results show that changing the weight of the container that holds your food can change how full you expect the meal to make you feel before you even eat it, and how full you actually feel after eating it. Piqueras-Fiszman explains the phenomenon as a ‘sensation transference’ where our feelings about the packaging or plateware holding the food transfers over to how we perceive the food itself. It explains why marketers spend so much money on packaging, why restaurants spend time plating out our meals on different plateware and perhaps why mindful eating can be helpful.
These results mark the beginning of a new era of gastrophysics research, and whilst it begins to shed some light on the complexities behind eating and food enjoyment, it also leads to many more questions. For example, do the differences in perceived satiety translate to actual satiety? How long do these effects last? Could this research apply to other foods or treats and would we see the same results in a naturalistic setting outside of a research environment? There is potential for this research to address obesity issues through altering how much we eat of healthy and unhealthy foods, and benefits may not just be limited to adults. For example, one gastrophysics study in 8-11 year olds found that making food more interesting increases consumption of that particular food item, with named carrots, called “X-ray vision carrots”, being twice as likely to be eaten by as simple “anonymous” carrots (3)
So next time you find yourself considering which diet to try next – think about changing your plateware instead. You never know – it may just be worth putting that weight on your plate instead of you!
1. Masters RK, Reither EN, Powers DA, Yang YC, Burger AE, Link BG. The impact of obesity on US mortality levels: the importance of age and cohort factors in population estimates. Am J Public Health 2013;103:1895-901
2. Piqueras-Fiszman B, Spence C. The weight of the container influences expected satiety, perceived density, and subsequent expected fullness. Appetite 2012;58:559-562
3. Wansink B, Just DR, Payne DR, Klinger MZ. Attractive names sustain increased vegetable intake in schools. Preventive Medicine 2012;55:330-2
About the Author
Amy Chan is currently finishing her doctoral degree at The University of Auckland with the Department of Pediatrics and School of Pharmacy. Her study was a clinical trial looking at how a ringtone inhaler device helped with medication taking and asthma in school-aged children. She also works as a clinical pharmacist at Auckland City Hospital. Her journey through her PhD and work with patients has opened her eyes to the exciting world of science and research, through which the work of some can help change the lives of many. She believes that "we are only people through people" and that with science and new discoveries, people are brought closer to each other as we gain knowledge and skills. In her spare time, Amy enjoys writing (both creatively and for a food blog), creating things, exploring new places and is a keen dance performer.
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