BY SUSHMA SUBRAMANIAN
So you’re sitting in a booth at a fast-food chicken joint. Maybe you’re there because of a funny commercial you saw on TV, or a nostalgia-induced craving, or it’s convenient and you’re starving. You unwrap the crinkly paper to unveil a squishy bun hugging a warm breast of fried chicken. Sizzling from the kitchen punctures the Top 40 music playing above. The aroma of crisped fat intensifies. You take a bite.
Hmmm. It tastes, well, kind of sucky. It’s not nearly as juicy as the ad made it look or as delicious as the ones you remember. Yet you eat, and maybe eat more of it than you should, as if compelled by outside forces.
The truth is, those forces—from the texture of the wrapping to the lightness of the bun to the too-loud pop music—are intentional. Scientists have long known that much of what you “taste” when you’re eating isn’t about your palate. A new branch of research is proving the assumption that all of your senses are at play when you eat.
To experience these findings firsthand, I paid a visit to Charles Spence, Ph.D., director of the University of Oxford’s Crossmodal Research Laboratory in London. Spence, an apple-faced man with a penchant for brightly colored pants, has popularized the term “gastrophysics” to refer to the science behind brain-belly communication.
Spence guided me through a multicourse meal designed by Kitchen Theory, which is kind of a pop-up restaurant-slash-food lab that incorporates Spence’s findings. Each course, prepared by chef Jozef Youssef, was meant to manipulate one of my senses. Here’s what I learned.
My first course was entirely white. Four appetizers sat atop an ivory platter: a snowy ball, cloudlike cotton candy, colorless globules with the consistency of egg yolk, and a triangular chip with a cuboid topping. With Spence looking on, I was told to eat them in order from sour to salty to bitter to sweet. I went for a chip. Spence asked why.
I told him the topping looked like it was pickled, so it might be sour. Spence suggested that there could be something else going on. Sweetness is typically associated with round shapes (think chocolate chip cookies and peanut butter cups). Hard, angled edges (pickle spears, lemon wedges) communicate sourness and bitterness.
But then I bit into the chip. It was sour, yes, but even after Spence told me the topping contained hearts of palm, white onion, lime, and olive oil, I couldn’t taste any of those.
Here’s how to hack your sense of sight to lose weight.
1. Shut Off the Neon
Spence’s research suggests that people are so compelled by color that they trick themselves into tasting what they see. In an experiment he reviewed, for example, many tasters deemed a cherry-flavored soda citrusy because it had a vibrant orange color. So by avoiding processed foods in any hue not found in nature, you can cut down on junk like sugary cereals, Skittles, and boxed mac ‘n’ cheese.
2. Look Past the Package
People tend to believe that a product in matte packaging is healthier than one in a glossy container, according to Spence. The nutrition facts are what matter: Always check them when you’re shopping for food.
3. Swap Your Dishes
Try eating out of a small bowl instead of a big plate. The rim of a plate may fool you into thinking there’s less food than there really is, Spence says. A bowl, especially filled to the top, gives the impression of abundance, possibly leading you to eat less. For reference, here’s what a serving size should look like.
Back in 2000, in his research on iced tea for a food company, Spence made an interesting discovery: When people opened a bottle of iced tea, they thought it smelled evocative. But when they drank the tea, the flavor was far more subdued, disappointing them. Your brain doesn’t like having its predictions be wrong, he says. This may be why a fast-food chicken sandwich smells so good but never seems to deliver.
He also found one way to fix the conflict between smell and taste: adding sugar. That way the tongue experiences the level of flavor it had expected based on scent. For example, peeling back a package of Oreos releases such a potent cookie smell that Nabisco likely had to dial up the sugar to meet expectations. And with all that added sugar, it’s no wonder that experts are now saying that sugar addiction is a real thing. Take this quiz to see if you’re hooked.
Here’s how to hack your sense of smell to lose weight.
1. Pick Plain
Choose regular, no-fruit-on-the- bottom yogurt to cut added sugar. Then add your own berries. Incorporate something that makes you chew longer, like walnuts or almonds, to help reduce your overall calorie intake, says Spence.
2. Watch the Booze
You know beer goggles are a thing, but beer schnozzes? People under the influence of alcohol tend to eat more calories, the journal Obesity reports. Alcohol can sensitize the brain to food aromas, inciting us to eat when we’re not hungry and to overeat. Order your drink with your meal, not before.
3. Lose the Idea of Scent
In 2015, researchers studied a marketing tactic called “smellizing”—that is, encouraging people to think about a product’s smell. Doing this heightened salivation rates when people looked at a picture of the product. If you think you’re being smell-teased, ask yourself: “Am I really hungry, or are other forces at work?”
Related: 6 Proven Weight-Loss Tips
My all-white appetizer led into a course of crisp seaweed spaghetti. The servers gave me a pair of headphones that emitted the sound of people chewing. The effect was amazing: The pasta seemed crunchier.
Spence says this explains what happens when people pair popcorn and a movie or potato chips and TV. When the loud sounds of your environment match the crunchiness happening inside your mouth, that’s harmony. But that harmony is also what can cause you to snack mindlessly.
Here’s how to hack your sense of sound to lose weight.
1. Focus on Chewing
Try eating a crisp, fresh salad without distractions. The simple sound of chewing will intensify your satisfaction.
2. Tune Your Fork
Fast-food joints play upbeat music for a reason. People tend to synchronize their chewing to the beat, says Spence. Here’s yet another reason to cook at home: Playing slower-paced music can help you chew slower and eat less overall. Try some Leon Bridges or Chet Baker.
One of the night’s final courses involved whiskey poured into two glasses. The first glass was thick and wide-rimmed with parallel lines up the sides. The second was smaller and lighter with a wide bowl that tapered at the rim. We took a drink from each. “Are they the same or different?” Youssef asked.
My sip from the heavier glass tasted more alcoholic and more pungent. According to Spence, heavy weight conveys bitterness and masculinity. The whiskey from the smaller glass tasted sweeter and more intense, as if its flavors were more concentrated. Turns out, both drinks were Chivas 12.
In a similar experiment, people were served yogurt in two bowls that looked the same but differed in weight. They were asked to hold each bowl while deciding which yogurt might keep them fuller. The heaviest bowl rated higher. The brain associates heft with tastiness. The inverse may also hold true: When your fast food arrives in lightweight paper, you’re being led to lower your expectations.
Here’s how to hack your sense of touch to lose weight.
1. Buy Heavy Cutlery
Using a heftier knife and fork has been shown to make people rate food as higher in quality than, say, a meal that’s served with plastic utensils.
2. Cup Your Meal
Having oatmeal? Hold the bowl in your hands when you eat. Feeling the weight has been shown to make you feel fuller faster, since you attribute the heavy feeling to a richer meal. (Try this apple cinnamon peanut butter oatmeal for a seriously filling breakfast.)
3. Eat Slow Food
In a Singaporean study, people ate six times more quickly when their food was the “fast” variety (like a smoothie) than when it was “slow” (as in something that’s bitten and chewed). What’s more, these fast-food eaters ingested 10 to 30 percent more calories than the slowfood eaters, though both groups tended to feel equally full.
After the meal, Spence said something that stuck with me. “If I had to rank the senses in order of importance for eating, I’d choose sight and smell as most important,” he said. “Then sound and touch. Last is taste.”
Knowing the different ways restaurants and food producers manipulate your senses is your first step toward smarter eating. But it’s in leveraging gastrophysics that you start to tip the scale to your advantage.