Eating healthy can often feel like the ultimate battle between right and wrong. A perpetual dichotomy of the kale-and-salad-loving angel on your left versus the cheesy-pizza-loving devil on your right. However, choosing what we eat is frankly not as simple as identifying the foods that will or won’t best satisfy our nutritional needs. Other considerations such as emotional state and personal identity all play a part. The dual-process model of behaviour is a key model that allows us to examine food behaviours but it seems the complexity behind our food choices may be difficult for a single model to explain.
The psychology behind ‘right’ and ‘wrong’
Psychologists term the battle between ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ a dual-process model of human behaviour. The dual-process model posits that while humans are exceptional at being able to pre-determine their behaviour, they often act spontaneously.Hofmann W, Friese M, Strack F. Impulse and self-control from a dual-systems perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2009 Mar;4(2):162-76. This theory is commonly used to look at self-control scenarios where people are torn between controlling their behaviour to achieve a long-term goal (e.g. eat healthy most of the time to maintain a normal weight) and impulses for immediate gratification (e.g. eat a doughnut every day at 3pm). According to the theory, there is no room for compromise: the stronger inclination is what will dictate an individual’s behaviour in any given situation. Additionally, the theory proposes the opposing forces induce a moral tone to the outcome, which is where the ‘right/good’ versus ‘wrong/bad’ judgement comes into play.
Limitations of the dual-process model
While most of us can relate to the right/wrong struggle when it comes to food choices, identifying behaviour in such an extreme, contrasting way simplifies other factors that influence our behaviour. Essentially, as our minds have many systems that help us to make decisions, this pro versus con way of looking at food may not be a complete understanding of how we make decisions around food choices.Gilbert DT. What the mind’s not. Dual-process theories in social psychology. 1999:3-11. As well, choices around eating ‘healthy’ shouldn’t carry a moral significance – but that’s a topic for another article!
The impact of labelling
When it comes to food behaviour, there are several documented ways to circumvent the dual-process theory to make the ‘right’ choice such as avoiding the temptation of the ‘wrong’ option or framing the choice in a different way. Why, then, do many of us choose the 3pm doughnut over the vitamin and mineral-rich healthy snack or, god-forbid, wait until dinner? Could it be that there is more to the ‘wrong’ choices when it comes to food than just an uncontrollable impulse? For instance, one study identified that the way a food is presented has a role in our eating behaviours and satiety, regardless of the actual nutritional content of the food.Ogden J, Wood C, Payne E, Fouracre H, Lammyman F. ‘Snack’versus ‘meal’: The impact of label and place on food intake. Appetite. 2018 Jan 1;120:666-72. The study randomly allocated participants into four conditions that involved a serving of pasta that was nutritionally and visually the same. The experiment tested the influence of casual dining settings (standing with plastic plates and cutlery), formal dining settings (sitting with ceramic plates and metal cutlery) and the framing of the pasta as a ‘snack’ or as a ‘meal’.Ogden J, Wood C, Payne E, Fouracre H, Lammyman F. ‘Snack’versus ‘meal’: The impact of label and place on food intake. Appetite. 2018 Jan 1;120:666-72. The results demonstrated that those within the ‘snack’ condition ate significantly more in the taste test than those in the ‘meal’ condition. The experiment identifies the key influence that framing a particular food can have. The phrase ‘snack’ can conjure thoughts of food that is meant for in-between meal times, or not as filling as a full meal, therefore encouraging more food to be eaten regardless of the nutritional content.
The ‘Milkshake’ study
Another study’s findings suggest the circumstances and setting surrounding food can meaningfully influence our physiological responses to what we consume.Crum AJ, Corbin WR, Brownell KD, Salovey P. Mind over milkshakes: mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response. Health Psychology. 2011 Jul;30(4):424. Participants were allocated into two conditions. Both were given the same 380-calorie milkshake. In the first condition, participants were told the milkshake was an indulgent 620-calorie drink, while those in the second condition were told they were drinking a sensible 140-calorie drink.Crum AJ, Corbin WR, Brownell KD, Salovey P. Mind over milkshakes: mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response. Health Psychology. 2011 Jul;30(4):424. Interestingly, merely suggesting the milkshake was high-calorie and indulgent produced a significant decrease in the appetite-stimulating hormone ghrelin among participants in the first condition, that was not echoed in the second condition where the milkshake was suggested to be a sensible choice. Further, those who believed they had drunk the indulgent milkshake reported greater satiety.
Food choices are complex
It seems the simple dichotomy of the dual-process model between logically choosing to eat foods based on their sound nutritional value and impulsively choosing poorer nutritional options may not be enough to fully explain the complex interactions that drive our food behaviour. What is clear is that even though health isn’t merely determined by the amount of times you choose a kale salad over a cheesy pizza, better understanding our complex food behaviours could be key in helping individuals manage their nutrition and weight, and in designing public policy to counter nutrition-related diseases.
References [ + ]
|1.||⇪||Hofmann W, Friese M, Strack F. Impulse and self-control from a dual-systems perspective. Perspectives on Psychological Science. 2009 Mar;4(2):162-76.|
|2.||⇪||Gilbert DT. What the mind’s not. Dual-process theories in social psychology. 1999:3-11.|
|3.||⇪ab||Ogden J, Wood C, Payne E, Fouracre H, Lammyman F. ‘Snack’versus ‘meal’: The impact of label and place on food intake. Appetite. 2018 Jan 1;120:666-72.|
|4.||⇪ab||Crum AJ, Corbin WR, Brownell KD, Salovey P. Mind over milkshakes: mindsets, not just nutrients, determine ghrelin response. Health Psychology. 2011 Jul;30(4):424.|