Let's take "hunger" and "blood glucose" out of the food equation for a moment. Everything else being equal, we have a lot of opportunity to make unhealthy food choices -- whether they be budgetary pressure or financial opportunity; the availability of a wide variety of foods or the unavailability of healthy foods; a wealth of social occasions where food is presented or the depression of loneliness; the lack of time in which to prepare or eat healthy food or the leisure in which to experiment with many new foods... and let's not forget food-oriented advertising.
It has been shown that many of our food choices and portion sizes have less to do with health, and less to do with hunger, than they have to do with external influences.
Many of the news-media features trying to decipher the apparent oxymoron of the "French woman's diet" suggest that the difference is less the portion size presented than the cultural norm of self-control in which only three bites or so are consumed, leaving a fair amount of what we Americans would call "wasted food" on the plate. (Let's face it, how many of us have been raised to clean our plates, regardless of whether or not we liked the food presented and whether or not the amount was excessive? How many of us were told we could not have the tasty dessert until we finished our main courses?) The cultural norm of "leaving food on the plate" is not French-specific -- a Portuguese friend tells me that in her culture, a "clean plate" suggests one is still hungry, giving one's host the signal to present the eater/guest with more food. Common courtesy in that culture is to leave two bites' worth of food on the plate to signal that you have eaten enough.
I'm not sure whether or not the "clean plate club" is a US-specific cultural norm -- but whether or not it is, combining "supersizing" with the "clean plate club" leads to significant overconsumption by a large proportion of the American people.
On the flip side of the coin, I've heard many people say that they are easily able to stop eating after very small portions of a rich food if that food is of top quality -- for example, a single Green & Black's 4.4 gram organic chocolate wafer versus a handful of Hershey's 4 gram kisses, or a tablespoon of Ciao Bella gelato (240 calories per 1/2 cup), versus a cup of Edy's Slow-Churned no-sugar-added, light ice cream (110 calories per 1/2 cup).
What conditions some of us to be satisfied with smaller amounts of high-quality food? What conditions us to "clean plate" and overeat foods that are not as pleasant to the palate? And how does that play into our desire (and ability) to swiftly pack away large quantities of palate-pleasing foods as well?Some possibilities might include:
- Meal duration.
- If our environment requires us to eat "on the run" -- to quickly pack away the necessary calories -- we may feel we have to eat quickly, large bites of calorie-dense foods, in order to maintain the energy needed to get us to our next meal break.
- Social conditioning.
- If our food is not pleasant, but we are required to consume it anyway (the "clean plate club"), we may try to limit our palate's contact with the unpleasantness by eating quickly -- often overconsuming in the process.
- Gustatorial pleasure.
- If our food is pleasing to the palate, we can choose to prolong the pleasure by either slowly eating small amounts, or by eating larger amounts. If larger amounts are available, the pure hedonism of pleasing our palates will often lead us to overconsume.
I'd like to take a closer look at the idea of being socially conditioned to consume unpleasant food. In order to minimize food-tongue contact time, these foods are often chewed further forward in the mouth, avoiding the molars as much as possible, with the tongue either drawn further back into the oral cavity or drawn up to the hard palate, until the food has been masticated just enough to be successfully swallowed.
If we have conditioned ourselves to eat in this manner, we may forget to let our tongues down to experience the entire range of tastes and textures of foods that are pleasing to us. As a result, we don't have enough palate time with the pleasing food to satiate our desire for that taste... and we eat more.
On the other hand, could it be that our palates fatigue of a particular taste after a given amount of mouth time -- allowing us to either stop eating, or to continue eating to excess, depending on our conditioning? Studies have shown that the more distinct foods (and tastes) that are on a plate, the more the diner will eat. Now, most people I know alternate the tastes of the various courses on their plate: a couple bites of meat, a couple bites of vegetable, a couple bites of starch, return to the meat. Could this be because we tire of one taste and need to break it up with another taste, whether or not we have completely "cleared our palates"?
If we are eating an unpleasant food, does it become less unpleasant after the first two or three mouthsful, fatiguing our palate so we can "clear our plates"?
And if we are eating pleasant foods, do we keep eating because we can no longer taste that food, and want to recapture the pleasure of the first taste?
If "palate fatigue" is a real response, and not just wishful thinking... then, would we eat any less if we were to eat each course separately, with beverage coming only between courses? Would we stop eating once we hit taste fatigue, and not pick back up until the next taste was presented? Would we eat more appropriately?
It's something I'm going to have to consider...