You're more likely to overindulge on an exquisite piece of chocolate cake than a bland cup of cottage cheese, right?
Well, there's an emerging science that suggests the way we think about overeating is all wrong. People gorge not necessarily because food is delicious, the theory goes, but because food is flavorless.
"I belong to the minority of researchers who are at odds with the idea that food should be bland, boring, and not satisfactory in order for people not to overeat," declared Per Møller, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
He's been investigating the science of pleasure and has come to a counterintuitive conclusion. For most people, it seems self-evident that if you eat and drink food that's delicious — or that "has a high sensory quality," as Møller puts it — then you will necessarily eat more than you should. But he and other researchers have been finding the opposite might be true.
In one study published in 2013 in the journal Flavor, Møller fed participants soup that was either very bland or very flavorful (spiced with hot chili) to see which satiated people more quickly.
"We found that when they ate the spicy soup they got satiated faster and they were less hungry at the end," he explained. "So it seems as if sensory satisfaction does not necessarily lead to a larger intake."
Another group of researchers, at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, ran a study in 2009 looking at people's cravings after they ate the same portion size of either cottage cheese or chocolate mousse. They found that their cravings dropped off significantly more after eating the mousse. In other words, the researchers concluded, people were less likely to overeat after they indulged in foods they liked.
Some of Møller's views are less scientific, but interesting nonetheless. As he writes in the Flavor piece:
From a highly unscientific introspection and conversations with friends and colleagues about these matters, it seems that most of us eat far less high quality Parmesan cheese when offered it, than cheap, not so tasty hard cheeses. The same applies to wines and chocolate. Very few people can eat a whole 100g bar of Valrhona chocolate in one go, but easily perform this feat with chocolate of a lesser quality. From a more epidemiological point of view, one would wonder why the obesity problem in France is less severe than in other affluent countries with foods and meals generally of a lower quality than those served in France.
This sounds a lot like a scientist's musings about the book French Women Don't Get Fat. As Møller told Vox, "The implication is that you should spend time preparing your food, and you should use spices and do everything you can to have your food taste good."
These findings out of Europe square with other research from the US. Cornell professor Brian Wansink has found that people often overeat flavorless foods but we don't just overdo it on tasty morsels. He also found that environmental cues, like larger plate size and portion size, can cause people to consume more calories. In one study, for example, he fed participants using a "bottomless soup bowl" designed to automatically refill as people were eating. The group with the bottomless bowls ate an average of 73 percent more soup than those eating from a regular bowl. So it's not just about overindulging when something's delicious.
Fred Provenza, of Utah State University, has developed a body of research over several decades that suggests flavor is a hugely important and underappreciated determinant of how and what people eat. From an evolutionary standpoint, Provenza argues, this means we're basically wired to use flavor as a guide for our nutritional needs. His take is that when we eat artificially flavored foods (say, blueberry soda that delivers no nutrients) we trick our bodies and end up overdoing the calories in search of the nutrients these processed foods are missing.
If people ate more wholesome food — rich in both nutrients and flavor, like high-quality vegetables, fruits, and meats — Provenza theorizes, we'd eat fewer calories and crave less junk. (You can read more about Provenza and the importance of flavor in journalist Mark Schatzker's fascinating book, the The Dorito Effect.)
Møller, for his part, also believes problems of overeating could be solved by focusing more on flavor. But first, he said, Americans need to drop the protestant notion that flavorful food should be avoided. "We have been taught that pleasure is not something we should indulge in — that pleasure is bad," he said. Instead, his findings suggest: "We should learn more from the French and Italian cultures — to enjoy food and derive more satisfaction from it."