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External Factors Influencing Human Eating Behaviour

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  • Svetlana Yakuncheva


How do external factors influence human eating behaviour?

There is an impressive amount of research that has been focused on understanding the factors that impact food choice. Unfortunately, much less investigation has been made in order to understand the factors that mediate the human eating behaviour. Recent evidence has shown that there is a strong correlation between the ambient eating environment and an increase in food consumption volume to a far greater degree than the majority of us might realise (Bell & Pliner 2003; Caldwell & Hibbert 2002; Gueguen & Jacob 2007; Wansnik, 2004; Zampini & Spence 2004, 2005). In addition, it has been found that taste perception of similar foods varied in the different eating atmospheres (Bellisle & Dalix, 2001; Mela, 2001; Smith & Ditschun, 2009).

The enquiry question is a particular interest in modern society considering the dramatic rise of the obesity epidemic. According to Lyman (1999) one of the main driving factors of this epidemic is overconsumption of food. Wansnik (2004) suggests that an increase in consumption norms are governed by external cues such as size of food packages, restaurant portion size, serving aids, and the presence of distraction or other people during eating. To determine the link between eating environment and food behaviour, the following essay will critically examine the recent literature related to the cross-modal interaction between external factors impacting human eating patterns on the psychological and sensory system levels. The paper is focused to determine a degree of indirect influence of the external factors on what or even why people are eating and how the taste perception might be alter by the ambient environment. The paper is divided into three main sections: first, it will evaluate the impact of packaging, serving aids, and lighting on food intake; second, it will examine the role of distractions that can alternate or mask the taste perception; and finally, it will highlight the role of social interaction, that might take place during eating, on the food consumption and perceived pleasantness.

Recent data suggests that the food consumption norm is usually determined by the packaging and marketplace portion sizes that leads to the normal portion size distortion (Wansik, 2004; Wansik & Kim, 2004; Smith & Ditschun, 2009). Smith and Ditschun (2009) point out that food packaging and retail serving sizes have been almost doubled in size since the time they were first introduced into the market causing difficulties in estimating an appropriate portion size by consumers, and therefore, resulting in overeating. Moreover, they emphasized the role of utensils and dishware in consumption volume, for instance, it was observed that due to the vertical-horizontal illusion people consumed 30 percent more beverage from a short, wide glass as it appeared to hold less volume than a tall glass; the Delboeuf illusion, which is governed by the relative size of two circles, makes the same amount of food appears smaller on the bigger plate. The authors suggest that consumers must be aware about this influence in order to control caloric intake. However, the main weakness of these studies is the failure to describe the ways of nutrition education to the mass population. In 2004, Wansnik and Kim publisheda paperin whichhe emphasised that environmental cues from larger package size affected the food intake of food even if it was disagreeable. It has also been found that super-size packaging and larger portion size implicitly suggest larger consumption norms as people construe that it is an appropriate amount to consume regardless of hunger level. Wansnik (2004) argues that the strategy of Smith (2009) will have been successful as simply bringing the awareness to the consumer will not eliminate the problem of portion control. He recommends to remove large packages, dinnerware, and serving from everyday life to prevent overconsumption.

Lighting is another factor in the eating environment that has been found to mediate human eating behaviour. People are found to be less self-conscious and insecure when the lights are low, hence, they tend to eat more than they otherwise would (Wansink, 2004). The first serious analyses of the correlation of light and food consumption emerged during the 1980s with Lyman (1983) concluded that warm and dimmed lightening (including candlelight) affected consumption volume, increased comfort and the degree of perceived pleasantness by the participants. This point is supported by Sommer (2009) who has reported that bright illumination decreases the duration of people stay in restaurant, while soft lightening causes people to linger and order an extra drink or unplanned dessert. However, one question that needs to be asked, is whether the light is paramount or secondary factor impacting food consumption and duration.

The relationship between food intake and distractions such as television, music, movies, or reading has been widely investigated by Bellisle and Dalix (2001), Caldwell and Hibbert (2002), Gueguen and Jacob (2007), and Wansik (2004). For example, a controlled study conducted in 2001 illustrated that people who ate dinner while watching a detective movie consumed 15 percent more in comparison with those who had their meal in silence (Bellisle & Dalix, 2001). Wansik (2004) states that distraction obscures one’s ability to control food intake by redirecting attention away from satiety signals resulting in extended meal duration and overeating.

Many researches have suggestedthat music and background noise indirectly affect the gustatory properties of food causing the disguise of its taste and textural properties. Early experiment done by Vickers (1982) illustrated that the amplitude of sound resulting from the food consumption played a significant role in the evaluation of the crispness of food. Recent research, such as that conducted by Zampini and Spence (2004), demonstrated the strong correlation between the sound that arises from eating potato chips and the ratings of the crispness perceived by the participants. The earlier studies of sound influence on taste perception have not dealt with food properties rather than crispness. It seems that Spence has understood that there might be much wider area for research in the field of sensory cross-modal interaction between sound and taste perception. In his thought experiment he has shown that carbonated water had been rated as more carbonated when the sound of carbonation was played to the participants during the experiment (Spence, 2005). Another recent observation studies conducted by North and Hargeaves (2006), Gueguen and Jacob (2007) examined the role of loud ambient noise (music) in a restaurant and duration of person’s meal. It had been found that loud, fast-tempo rhythms encouraged people to eat faster and spend less time in a restaurant as they felt discomforted and tensed. In addition, recent experiment by Caldwell and Hibbert (2012) found that soft music stimulated a longer duration of the meal, slower rate of eating, more pleasant feelings, and higher consumption of food and beverages as people are more likely to order an another drink or a dessert. Unfortunately, the main limitation of these studies is that none of them differentiated the participants based on their music tastes prior the experiment; hence, such explanations might overlook the fact that people have different music tastes. Suggestively, taste perception and amount of food eaten might vary depending on whether a person listens to their favourite or non-favourite music during eating.

Recently, a significant amount of literature has been published on the impact of the social interaction on eating behaviour (Bell & Pliner, 2003; Chaiken & Pliner, 2009; Wansik, 2004). In 2004, Wansink published a paper in which he described how social cues governing an eating behaviour and food acceptability. First of all, the study has illustrated that people tend to observe and follow others consumption norm; and secondly, it was observed that dinning in a company of familiar and friendly people (such as family and friends) increases the amount and duration of meals. The following fact is supported by an experiments of Bell and Pliner (2003), Chaiken and Pliner (2009). According to them, eating with strangers suppresses food consumption and increases self-awareness similar to that of a first date or job interview. However, the main weakness of these studies is the failure to specify if the responce differs among obese and normal weight individuals.

To conclude, the research up-to-date indicates that the environmental cues indirectly mediate food intake and have a significant impact on the taste. General evidence illustrated that physical eating environment governs human appetite on the deep psychological, physiological and sociological levels causing overeating, which in turn contributes to the weight gain and triggers the epidemic of obesity.

The main external factors that influence food behaviour have been effectively identified by many researches, however, it has less effectively explained why they do so. Further work needs to be done to better understand the mechanism of human cross-modal sensory interactions between the food acceptability, intake and intensity of perceived pleasantness, and hearing, vision, and social communication. A future study investigating how person’s food choices and taste perception might be enhanced by modifying the ambient eating environment would be beneficial for the general population, and especially, for food manufactures, restaurants businesses, and marketing companies.


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