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Secrets of the Eating Lab Chapter 8

Friday, February 07, 2020

Chapter 8: Don’t Call That Apple Healthy

Think of the Three Stooges, is it funny or not? Well, that depends on who you are asking.

“It’s not the particular event we experience that affects how we feel, but rather, it how we interpret the events that matters.” (p. 119) Two people can experience the same thing, but have completely different emotional responses to it; It is how they interpret it – or how they think about it. In other words, the interpretation or thinking about a particular event will be different. So it is with how we perceive certain foods affect how we react to them.

Descriptive labels that are on food packages, even when they don’t provide meaningful information will still influence how we think about food. If a dish is given a descriptive name it may influence how people perceive that food. (my thought here – I think of recipes that are given descriptive names and think that these are not really anything special but given a flowering name – now I realize it is the creator of the recipe attempting to make the dish “fancier” than it really is.)

How we THINK about a food impacts more than just our mood but also affects us on a chemical level. A study was done where participants were given milkshakes where one describes as “decadent, indulgent, and having 640 calories and the other was described as being non-fat, guilt-free and having only 140 calories. Blood samples of the participants were taken before, during and after drinking the milkshakes.
The hormone ghrelin, which signals hunger, decreased when they drink the one they THOUGHT was decadent, but that level stayed the same when they drank what they thought was the low-fat version. Both milk shakes were, in reality, the same. The chemical reaction (levels of the hormone ghrelin) was due to what the participant perceived about the shake.

Ghrelin signals the actual state of hunger or satiety in order for us to know when to eat or when to stop eating.

The study showed that our thoughts matter. Changing your thoughts can lead to changes in your emotions, your behavior, and as this milkshake study showed, even physiological changes in our bodies.

The following strategies, therefore, will be based on the idea of changing our thoughts about certain foods. We need to change the way we think of healthy food so we will choose them. Also, we need to change the way we think of tempting foods (the ones we ought not eat for health) in order to resist them. Hopefully, by changing our thoughts (what we think), we can begin to enjoy healthy foods.

Calorie and Health Labels: Useful, Useless, or Worse?
If the calorie count is revealed, would it cause you to choose something else? Make you feel guilty if you choose it anyway? Make you want it even more?

Different people will not react the same way to the same information. It has been discovered that information on the calorie count in restaurants seems to have not made much difference in what people chose to order and eat. (MY thought here – in some restaurants, the calorie count helps me in my decision making and in others it makes no difference if I really want the item. )

Nutritional labels on the back of packages also seem to be ineffective in helping people make healthier choices. So, efforts were made to put a simplified version of nutrition on the front of packages to make it easier to compare products.

(My thought here – is by putting that information on the front of packages encourages the consumer not to turn the package over and take an actual look at the ingredient list to see what is actually in that package. I am sorry but I recall when they were claiming Fruit Loops was a healthy choice and I am skeptical.)

Public health organizations, food companies, and researchers experimented with different kinds of information (symbols) and formats for displaying it.


“Healthy” -> aside from getting competing interests to agree on what constitutes something to be “healthy” is that the term in itself is subjective to many. Many interpret “healthy” as something that tastes bad.

The eating lab hosted a conference and for the trinkets, instead of giving away magnets and pens, they offered food: Nut Goodie, Honey Crisp Apple, and Peace Coffee. For the apple, they displayed 3 signs throughout the registration process. One sign just said that the apple was developed by the University of Minnesota and was a healthy choice. The second said it was a healthy choice and had the American Heart Association Symbol. The third sign just described the apple. It was found that 50% more people took the apple when the AHA’s symbol was displayed.

The eating lab conducted another study: offered a bag of carrots as the healthy choice and Old Dutch Potato Chips as the unhealthy choice.

Note: apparently people prefer apples over carrots, they found that only 20% of the people took the carrots, whereas 50% took the apple.

But, once again, they found simply stating a food was “healthy” had no effect on people choosing it. But with the heart symbol more people took the carrot. They also tested with slogans on the signs for the carrots and people took more of the carrots when the signs were displayed:
Carrots: An Energizing Snack
Carrots: A Snack to Keep You Focused
Carrots: A Quick Snack

What they found was labeling a food other than “healthy” encouraged people to take that food.

The conclusion of that study led to strategy 6; if you want someone to eat a “healthy” food, so not explicitly label it as “healthy”.

So, if you are trying to incorporate foods that are known to be “healthy” for you, don’t eat them just because they are healthy, but find reasons that are compelling to you.
For example: 1.) Eat more vegetables because you planted and harvested them. 2.) Eat an apple because you like the crunch.

In other words, reframe the way you look at healthy foods.

Healthy Halos or Healthy Trade-Offs?

Healthy Halo = have one healthy choice then indulge in the rest of the meal.
Study: people were given a Subway sandwich (considered a healthy choice) or a Big Mac (considered the unhealthy choice); then they were told to choose the rest of the meal. Those that were given the Subway sandwich choose dessert and were less likely to order a diet soda. In the end, their full meal was actually less healthy than the Big Mac’s participants.

(Now I understand why so many people order a burger and French fries and then have a diet soda)

Healthy Halos and Healthy Trade-offs – there is a fine line between the two as it can lead to overeating when you think you are eating healthy.
Example: having a salad instead of French fries so you can eat a dessert afterward. The trick is to find the balance so you don’t over-indulge. The same can be true with exercise. Some use exercise for their excuse to indulge in some unhealthy food afterward. (My thought – there is a saying, “You cannot outrun a bad diet.”)

For many years, researchers thought that, because of studies conducted, people adopted a “what the he** attitude if they blew their diet and then just continued to overeat.

However, the researchers of the eating lab conducted studies that showed, for the majority, many who over indulge will compensate for the extra calories and eat less later on. Conclusion, when given a choice, people do generally attempt to make trade-offs to balance their indulgences, either by balancing higher calorie foods with lower calorie foods or with exercise. (p 131)


We have seen how to change what we think about healthy food so we’d be more inclined to eat them, but how do we do this in reverse about unhealthy food choices?

Instead of thinking of the now, at the immediate moment, of how delicious a particular food may taste, think of the future and how eating that food will prevent you from reaching your goal weight range. Thinking of the long-term consequences may make it easier to resist temptation.

General and Abstract Thoughts –vs- Specific and Detailed
You are looking at a chocolate chocolate-frosted donut (my thought here: funny how that is one of my temptation foods) and are imagining biting into the crust to the soft center and having that frosting ooze onto your fingers for you to lick off. Thinking like that about that donut will melt your resolve not to eat it.

Instead of thinking of the taste and texture, think about more of the size, shape or color. Don’t think of it specifically as an iced donut, but rather a general breakfast food. It is all about how you label a food and of the image that label conjures up in your mind. (For me, when my tastes have changed to eat healthier foods that are in their more natural state – that chocolate chocolate-iced donut no longer tastes good to me and I do use taste and texture as a deterrent now to resist a ‘unhealthy’ food. )

Example to learn to think abstract –vs- specific:
Abstract, take a list of words and put them under a category – dog: animal, furry, etc
Specific: same list but give examples of each one – dog: Collie, Poodle, Beagle

It is all about changing how you think of a particular food to prevent you from eating it. However, sometimes that is not enough and you need to learn to stop thinking about certain foods – the next chapter will give you strategies to help healthy eating become automatic.
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Member Comments About This Blog Post
    I'm with you on the chocolate-chocolate frosted donut - can't stand eating anything that sweet any more. I've started buying 100% cacao baking chocolate instead of candy when I get a craving for chocolate because it's not sweet. All chocolate is processed, but the less that has been done to it, the better. I eat apples and carrots almost every day. Those are both sweet enough.
    116 days ago
    I like this chapter, because it allows for individual perceptions. It is important that we learn early in life about food choices and nutrition. Children can learn to love vegetables as well as candy.
    116 days ago
    I think that as long as you are tracking food on a tracker if you want something with a high calorie content you should be able to eat it while watching what you eat the rest of the day. This works for me and I am losing consistently.
    117 days ago
    All good information BUT I truly believe the best and easiest strategy is to just keeping only health giving foodstuffs on hand. Most folks just don't want to do the work of research.
    117 days ago
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