Food Cues Lead to Overeating
Did you ever pass a bakery and feel the need to stop in and buy something just due to the presence of the cakes in the window? Or perhaps you’ve pulled into a fast food drive-through on the spur of the moment, not because you were hungry, but because those golden arches seemed to be beckoning. Found yourself compelled to stop at an airport Cinnabon because the smell captured you from 25 yards away? These types of scenarios are all too common, and maybe not completely your fault. According to new research, food cues such as these often lead us to consume empty calories, even when we’re far from famished.
The study, which took place at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, found that food cues, which can include restaurant signs, images of food, smells, and advertisements, may stimulate cravings and feelings of hunger, leading people to eat at times when their bodies have given no actual signals of needing food.1 The results were based on an experiment involving 112 college-age men and women.
The participants were randomly divided into two groups. One group was assigned to a standard looking food laboratory. The other group, however, was assigned to a food laboratory designed to appear as a fast food restaurant, set up with tables, chairs, booths, and even background music.
Instructed to arrive an hour after eating lunch, the volunteers received tokens as they entered their particular lab. These tokens could be traded in for typical fast food items like burgers, French fries, and soft drinks, or used to unlock activities including playing video games. The behavior of each subject was tracked as to how they used their tokens, and they were asked about their levels of hunger, wanting, and liking of their choices.
Despite having eaten not long before the experiment began, the participants placed in the environment resembling a fast food restaurant were more likely to say they felt hungry than their peers in the laboratory setting. And they acted on that “feeling” of hunger as well. Those in the fast food atmosphere consumed 220 additional calories over those in the plain lab group.
The only difference was the set up of the laboratory, which is fairly strong evidence of the impact that food cues can have on our behavior. It’s clearly a negative effect when people are influenced by the cues they’re sensing to use their tokens on a milkshake or cheeseburger even though they aren’t experiencing any hunger immediately to entering the experiment. What’s more, when asked about how they liked the food eaten during the experiment, the volunteers did not enjoy it any better in the food cue environment, despite eating more. So not only were they getting nothing nutritious for their consumption, but they didn’t even derive pleasure from eating the junk food!
Although the investigation included only a relatively small number of subjects, the findings are in line with those of prior research. A 2015 study at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut showed that exposure to food cues, including both actual foods and advertising, is associated with increased cravings, greater consumption, and weight gain.2
So how do we avoid being influenced by food cues? Obviously, we can’t close our eyes to every sign or steer clear of all the blocks that may have tempting drive-throughs or avoid the smells of fresh popcorn and cinnamon buns in airports. But there are ways to lessen their impact on us. The most obvious of these is simple awareness. Keep the results of the current study in mind so that when you start to crave a doughnut as you approach the local Krispy Kreme, you recognize it’s the food cue spurring you on rather than a real need for fried dough. That can help you successfully pass right by.
If you have children who beg you for fast food, which always ends up with you purchasing a double cheeseburger with fries just because you’re there too, change your habits. The kids may not be pleased initially, but they want your time and attention and that doesn’t need to revolve around food. Plan a family day of biking, walking through a nature preserve, or just sitting around the table playing games together. The more you can take the food cues out of the equation, the less you’ll all be craving foods you are better off without.
- 1. Joyner, Michelle A.; et al. "Investigating an Incentive-Sensitization Model of Eating Behavior: Impact of a Simulated Fast-Food Laboratory." Clinical Psychological Science. August 15, 2017. Accessed 27 November 2017. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/2167702617718828.
- 2. Boswell, Rebecca G. and Kober, Hedy. "Food cue reactivity and craving predicts eating and weight gain: a meta-analytic review." Obesity Reviews. 8 December 2015. Accessed 29 November 2017. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/obr.12354/abstract