Did that cake really call to me? It might just have done.....
Like most people I can be tempted into eating something I don't need when presented with a tasty looking dish or be persuaded to order more than I need at a restaurant by gratuitous pictures of the specials or seductive food displays. My partner on the other hand, is much more restrained in the same circumstances and just orders what she fancies. Does she have more resolve than me? Or do I just have eyes bigger than my belly?
In the 1960s Psychologist Stanley Schachter came up with an interesting theory which not only suggests an answer but would also go on to shape the way that we buy food and drink.
Two signals to eat
According to Schachter people start eating on the basis of two different types of signal.
The first set of signals comes from your body. Like that full feeling you have when you're absolutely stuffed and your body is telling you can't even squeeze in a wafer-thin mint or when your stomach rumbles and you know it's time to head for the kitchen cupboards.
The second set of signals come from your surroundings. Examples of this are deciding you are hungry after seeing a cake on display or heading for the kitchen to cook after looking at your watch and seeing it's dinner time.
In these situations we ignore signals from our body and decide how we feel based on what is going on around us.
Are you an 'internal' or an 'external' eater?
We are all influenced by both sets of signals but Schachter speculated that some people are more likely to listen to their bodies (he called these people 'internals') and others are more influenced by their surroundings ('externals').
Schachter suggested that in environments where food is scarce neither would be more likely to be obese, internals would eat when they are hungry and externals would eat when food was available.
It makes evolutionary sense to have both types of eater, that way the population will survive no matter how infrequently food is available. The problem with this comes in the developed world where we are never more than 5 minutes from a fast food restaurant or a sugary snack. We have supermarkets with isle after isle of sweets and treats, fast food restaurants that offer to supersize everything for a tiny cost and cinemas where we are offered popcorn and soda in bucket-sized containers. None of this will present a problem for internals but externals will feel like they are being bombarded with signals screaming ‘eat me’ at every turn.
Schachter therefore, hypothesised that in the developed world this would lead to internals being slim but externals would tend to be overweight. His theory has been tested over and over and his results have been recreated in a number of studies since.
Restaurants know this too
His theory also has huge implications for how we are sold food.
If a restaurant can make us less self-conscious it can cause us to ignore the internal signals from our bodies and appeal more strongly to external signals.
Ever wondered why restaurants use low lighting and soft music?
These distract our attention away from our bodies, helping us to ignore the internal signals. This then shifts our attention to our surroundings where we are presented with photos of tasty foods in all their glory, displays designed to appeal to the senses and tables placed so close together it's easy to look enviously over on to the next table at what others are eating. The fact that you get food envy is no accident.
The same thinking lies behind the dessert trolley, if our focus is outside of ourselves and we see foods placed in front of us, we are more likely to consume a greater volume of food. We are eating with our eyes.
I'm an external, so is my weight loss doomed to fail?
No. If you are reading this thinking that you sound like an 'external' this does not mean doom and gloom for your weight loss efforts, there is good news.
The same psychology that helps restaurants sell more can also be used to help you achieve your goals. Here's some suggestions from Richard Wiseman, psychologist and author:
- Focus on the signals in your body (remember we all have both signals) when you feel the need to eat something ask yourself: am I really hungry?
- Keep food out of sight and stay away from the snack isle. Research shows that out of sight really is out of mind. In one study when extra food was available but stored away in a fridge, neither internals or externals touched it.
- Don’t allow distractions while you are eating. This means anything which distracts your focus from your internal signals such as eating while watching tv, listening to music or reading.
- Focus on your internal signals and your body. Chew each mouthful slowly and be mindful of what you are eating.
- More extreme strategies include; eating in front of a mirror, dining in harsh lighting, swapping your knife and fork for chopsticks or using your fork in your non-dominant hand.
Does this mean that my weight is down to my environment?
Again no. I don't think we can simply throw our hands in the air and blame our surroundings.
We are still responsible for the decisions we make and the signals we choose to pay attention to, remember we all have both sets of signals. Whatever your natural preference, experience tells me you can definitely shift your focus.
As I was looking into the research on internals and externals started to reflect on my own preference. I realised that I used to pay attention to the external signals almost all of the time.
When I wasn't feeling satisfied with things in my life then food was a great distraction, a way of perking me up. When we are ignoring what is really going on on the inside and positively searching for that need to be met by stuff on the outside, we don't tend to listen to internal signals particularly well, if at all, and in this state we allow ourselves to be directed by external cues.
However, I noticed when I worked out why I was overeating and what I really needed, I changed my mindset towards eating and I definitely found paying attention to my internal signals much easier. Don't get me wrong I think I will always be an 'external', but when I was clear on what I needed, what I wanted for my body and decided to put my wellbeing top of my priority list, I found that I could ignore the external cues no matter what was put in front of me and be much more centered on making decisions that were right for me.
So what does it mean for weight loss?
I think the focus always has to be paying attention to what you need and what your decisions are doing for you. When you work out why you overeat you can start to change things and focus more strongly on the internal. When our needs are met we are less likely to look outside of ourselves.
However, if you haven't reached that point yet then you can still use this knowledge to stack the odds in your favour. We really do eat with our eyes and out of sight is out of mind. Keep foods you don't want to eat out of sight. Slow down and focus on what your body really needs.
What do you think?
- Are you internal or external?
- When you are happier do yo find external signals easier to ignore?
- How much does our environment affect our decision making about food?
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