Plus, if you watch television or read while you eat, you may be unaware of how much you have consumed. Indeed, the distraction may very well have masked or overridden the basic animal pleasure of eating.
So what simple technique could you practice that would help you enjoy your food more and possibly eat less? One researcher tells us to tap into the power of ritual.
Almost everyone knows that birthday cake isn't eaten until "Happy Birthday" has been sung, a wish has been made and the candles have been blown out. The ritual, which precedes the dessert, contributes to the pleasure of the occasion. However, what we might not know is how much rituals can positively influence the experience of eating—even shaping how much we eat.
Through self-observation and watching the idiosyncratic routines of others, psychological scientist Kathleen Vohs, an expert on self-regulation and a professor at the University of Minnesota, became curious about the impact of rituals on eating behavior. To examine their impact, she designed four experiments.
In the first experiment, some of the participants were given a set of instructions (in effect, a detailed ritual) on how to eat a candy bar. They were told to break the bar in half without unwrapping it; then they were to unwrap half of the bar and eat it. For the remaining two steps, they were to unwrap and then eat the second half. The other participants were given a candy bar and told to eat it in whatever fashion they wanted.
The participants who performed the detailed eating ritual gave a higher rating to the quality of the chocolate and enjoyed the candy bar more than the other group did, and they were willing to pay more for the bar than the other group was. Dr. Vohs concluded that "a short, fabricated ritual can produce real effects."
A second experiment reinforced the initial conclusion and added another dimension—a longer delay between the ritual and eating enhanced the enjoyment of eating the food, even for a simple vegetable such as carrots.
In the final two experiments, the researchers found that watching others perform the ritual didn't add value for the observers—to have a positive impact, the person who is eating must be involved.
Seven hundred years ago, Zen Buddhist monks introduced the rudiments of today's elaborate tea ceremony—a practice that demonstrates the powerful impact of ritual. But we don't have to go back in time to find examples of ritual behavior everywhere in our daily life—from the recurring music that triggers the start of Monday Night Football to parents' bedtime routines for children, from spiritually based rituals (such as Masonic rituals) to the collective American feast on Thanksgiving Day.
Clearly, rituals are potent in influencing behavior because they make us more mindful and present. Given Dr. Voh's findings plus related studies on weight loss through mindful eating, you might want to introduce or reinforce pre-meal rites that can help you eat less while enjoying your food more.
Rituals might include sitting down at a table to eat without the distraction of a television or reading material, giving thanks for the food before beginning to eat or taking a five-minute midmeal break.
In designing your personal rituals, the only limitation is your imagination. The rites can be highly individualistic or idiosyncratic and still effectively harness the power of ritual. Best of all, the benefits are free and available to all.