Life Extension Magazine®
Woman eating chocolate that should be avoided

Issue: Dec 2018

Melanie Mühl & Diana von Kopp: How We Eat With Our Eyes and Think With Our Stomach

In their new book, How We Eat With Our Eyes and Think With Our Stomach, Melanie Mühl and Diana Von Kopp explain how commercial forces manipulate us into buying and consuming foods we don’t really want and should avoid.

By Garry Messick.

Amazingly, studies show that the average person makes over 200 choices involving food and diet every day. But how many of these are rational, considered choices and how many are simply impulses driven by our mindless, subconscious urges? Furthermore, to what extent are external, commercial forces manipulating us into buying and consuming foods we don’t really want and would do well to avoid?

What you need to know

Melanie Mühl reveals hidden facts about the food industry, the way we think about food and provides tips to help you stick to a healthy diet. It’s all in her best-selling book How We Eat with Our Eyes and Think with Our Stomach.

These and other questions are addressed in How We Eat With Our Eyes and Think With Our Stomach, a German bestseller that has now been published in English. Life Extension® sat down with authors Melanie Mühl and Diana von Kopp for a discussion touching on questions of food preference, the perils of shopping at the supermarket, and why most people perceive healthy food as tasting bad while junk food is considered delicious.

Melanie Mühl is a journalist whose blog Food Affair reaches hundreds of thousands of readers a month. Diana von Kopp is a psychologist who has long been fascinated with the impact food has on our brains and behavior.

salmon and olive oil containing Omega-3 healthy fats  

LE: What is the basis for food preferences?

MM & DK: These foundations are already laid in the womb. Did you know that the sweeter the amniotic fluid, the more often the unborn baby swallows? Bitter compounds, however, are not so popular.

Once we’re born, the conditioning continues. Some of us turn into picky eaters, while others happily eat everything that’s put in front of us. Sooner or later we find ourselves on our first diet and realize: Darn, it’s not working! But why not? Because, in short, we are not rational eaters.

Pointing out the irrational way we often make choices, the behavioral psychologist Dan Ariely describes us humans as “pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend.” And when we do, we systematically underestimate them. This is also true with food.

LE: What should people be aware of when shopping in the supermarket?

MM & DK: Every time we step through its doors we enter into a battle with our enemy, the supermarket corporation, whose motives are totally opposed to our own. While we hope to do our shopping quickly and efficiently, buying just the milk, bread, yogurt, pesto, apples, and leeks on our list, the supermarket owners would prefer we spend hours strolling slowly through the aisles and reaching for new products left and right, products that we neither need nor want. Which is why supermarkets use subtle psychological tricks to entice us. We think we can see through their schemes…but we’re wrong.

LE: For example?

MM & DK: In some supermarkets, vegetables are sprinkled with water to give them a shiny, fresher appearance, but in reality, this only makes them rot more quickly. What is true for vegetables applies to fruit as well. Bananas, for instance, have gone through a color-optimization process when planted.

The reason why the chilled aisles are located at the back of the store is that dairy products are among the most frequently bought items. So the consumer is made to walk past numerous other products—temptations. Expensive, branded products are placed at eye level. Cheaper ones are on the top and bottom shelves.

LE: How should we avoid buying the unhealthy, processed foods that the supermarket heavily promotes?

MM & DK: Know exactly what it is that you need to pick up and stick to the shopping list. In the fight against the manipulation machine that is the supermarket, a helpful defense is tunnel vision and grim determination—if that doesn’t seem to work, try putting on headphones and listening to music to keep you focused while you shop.

LE: Let’s discuss eating habits. How should you know when you’ve had enough to eat? Is it simply a matter of stopping when you feel full?

A selection of carbohydrate foods. Carbohydrates lower your ghrelin levels particularly quickly, but the levels rise again soon after.  

MM & DK: People who rely on the fullness signals sent from their stomach wall to their brains run the risk of eating more food than is good for them. Fortunately, our bodies have additional sources of information, such as the nutrient density of a food. An important hormone in this process is ghrelin. Released in the stomach lining, it sends signals to the brain, where it influences complex processes such as appetite, sleep, addiction, and satiety. When you are hungry, your ghrelin levels increase. When you take in food, the production of ghrelin decreases.

Carbohydrates lower your ghrelin levels particularly quickly, but the levels rise again soon after. Fats, on the other hand, lower ghrelin levels more slowly and keep them low for a longer period of time, which explains why a handful of nuts keeps hunger at bay for longer than a donut.

The problem is that it can take up to 20 minutes for hormone-driven fullness to reach the brain and give the order to stop eating—and 20 minutes is plenty of time to eat one, two, or even three too many high-energy snacks such as a Mars bar.

Generally, we eat as much as we’re used to eating. Or until we’ve cleaned our plate. A clean plate is one of the strongest cues of all: We trust that we will automatically feel full with the last mouthful and happily ignore the fact that we might feel satisfied before then.

At home we happily shuffle between the kitchen and the couch to replenish our plates with small portions. This means that we lose track of the amount of food we’re consuming. When we divert our attention from what and how much we’re eating to other things, such as watching television, we fall into the same trap. Participants in an experiment who played solitaire on a computer while eating felt less full afterward than the control group who concentrated on their meal, and the solitaire players felt hungry again sooner.

In any case, in order to regain control of your calorie intake, it’s advisable to eat mindfully. Not on the go, but at the table. In her book First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, Bee Wilson pleads for more mindfulness: “If we are going to change our diets, we first have to relearn the art of eating.” It is impossible, she explains, to develop a healthy relationship with food as long as we ignore the signals of our own bodies and instead listen to external cues such as portion size to tell us when we’re full.

A selection of fruits and vegetables containing vitamins and healthy fats  

LE: Why do people tend to assume that healthier foods generally taste bad while unhealthy foods taste good?

MM & DK: Researchers at the University of Texas found that the less healthy an item is portrayed to be, the better it is inferred to taste. Likewise, when we ask, “Why does junk food taste better than healthy food?” we’ve presupposed that junk food does in fact taste better.

The idea that unhealthy foods taste better than healthy ones is not only widespread, it’s also a tenet we’ve been taught since the cradle, along the lines of: “Eat all of your broccoli and you can have cheesecake for dessert.” How are children supposed to learn to love vegetables when we put it in their minds that eating carrots and sprouts is an irksome necessity to be endured in order to get to the good bit?

Countless studies have proved that the mere mention that a food we’re about to be served is “healthy” lowers our taste expectations. In that University of Texas study, volunteers were asked to rate the tastiness of a mango lassi (a blended drink popular in Indian restaurants). If they were told before they tried it that it was a healthy drink, then they were significantly more likely to give it a low rating. When its high calorie content was highlighted, however, the volunteers praised the drink for its taste.

The fact that we are genetically programmed to love sugar and fat doesn’t help matters—and the food industry benefits from it. They tamper with our food and cash in on our innate weakness.

LE: Is there any way to disrupt our taste expectations?

MM & DK: The answer is yes, and an effective way is through education. Researchers at the University of Kiel in Germany were able to show that the effect of the unhealthy = tasty intuition decreases the more health-conscious people are.

Nevertheless, if you believe that rationality wins over taste and think that you can promote a product simply by highlighting its health benefits, you’re mistaken. According to the researchers, “The impact of automatically activated taste associations can’t even be shifted by an augmented health awareness.” The assumption to be altered, i.e., that a certain food is healthy, can’t necessarily be expanded to mean that it’s tasty, too.

Yet, despite this new insight, there is no need to feel disillusioned. In France, surprisingly, the opposite of the unhealthy = tasty intuition applies: The French expect healthy foods to be the tastier option. Researchers at the University of Grenoble in France attribute this primarily to the fact that the French are highly conscious of quality. Instead of artificial flavorings, chefs in France tend to use more herbs and spices, fresh garlic, and shallots. They create salads from ingeniously combined ingredients, for example, lemon zest and cilantro with tomatoes chopped into tiny chunks, a technique that allows the flavors to unfold the instant they hit the tongue.

How We Eat With Our Eyes and Think With Our Stomach
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LE: Finally, what are some things we should consider when making food choices?

MM & DK: The first step to intuiting what’s good for you is being conscious of how specific foods affect your body. Taking inspiration from French cuisine and always cooking with fresh, bright ingredients should do the trick as well.

Think about your expectations of a food’s nutrient content. Is that judgment based on what it looks like and how it’s presented? Its name? Packaging? Do you consider how many calories it has? Would you be surprised to learn that a chicken Caesar salad typically has over one thousand calories?

Think about the factors that help you determine which foods are “good” for you and which are “bad.”

If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Wellness Specialist at 1-866-864-3027.

To order a copy of How We Eat With Our Eyes and Think With Our Stomach, call 1-800-544-4440.