What is gastrophysics?
How satisfied you feel by your breakfast smoothie or your 4 o’clock snack may have more to do with what’s in your mind than what’s in your mouth.
The experience of eating and drinking is influenced by a host of surprising factors, from the weight of your fork to the music on your playlist to the shape, size, and color of your plate. This is a concept Oxford psychology professor Charles Spence, PhD, calls gastrophysics—and it can play a powerful role in what and how much we eat.
Spence’s latest book, Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating, is packed with fascinating facts about how our surroundings drive our eating habits. His next-level, research-backed tips can change the way you taste your food—so you make healthier choices and ultimately eat less. Here are a few of those gems that you can start using today.
Use less sugar in homemade desserts—and serve on a white plate
“Careful consideration of the coloring of a plate can be used to nudge any one of us toward slightly less unhealthy food behaviors,” says Spence. Research suggests that white plates magnify how sweet we find a food. In one study, the same strawberry dessert was rated 10% sweeter when it was served on a white plate than when it was served on a black plate. If you can rely on your plate to contribute to a perception of extra sweetness, you reduce the amount of actual sweetener you use in your recipes, he says.
That snack you’re addicted to? Eat it off a red plate
If you’re trying to cut back on salty, crunchy snacks, red is the ideal color for your flatware. Red is the color of stop signs after all, and red plates seem to communicate a similar warning to slow down. One study Spence cites found that people ate about half as many pretzels from a red plate than they did from a white one.
Hold your bowl in your hands
One of the challenges (heck, maybe the biggest challenge) of trying to eat less is that you don’t feel as satisfied on fewer calories. But your senses can help communicate to your brain that you’ve actually had enough to eat—and maybe even convince it that you’ve eaten more than you really did, says Spence.
Start by picking up your plate or bowl off the table. “Our brains don’t seem to separate what’s food and what’s plateware,” he says. The weight of the plate or bowl in your hands signals to your brain that your meal is substantial and satiating, he says, so you feel full sooner.
Focus on your food
“The more sensations you can get from your food, the happier you will be eating a little less,” says Spence. That means removing all distractions from the table, and fully immersing yourself in mealtime: Turn off the TV so you can look at what you’re eating. Bring your bowl right up to your nose and inhale deeply. “Get rid of your straw, which allows you to consume so much without realizing it,” says Spence. The more attentive you can be to your meal, the better. “The brain uses those sensations to say, ‘It’s time to stop now.'”
Visualize yourself eating before you dig in
If you have a weakness for, say, potato chips (who doesn’t?!), picture yourself eating a whole bunch of them before ripping open the bag. Research published in 2010 suggested that simply imagining eating a certain food can reduce how much of it you actually consume. The researchers believe that repeatedly visualizing yourself eating a particular food will reduce your desire for it over time.
Put on the right playlist to savor the flavor
Even your sense of hearing plays a role in taste, which is why some restaurants have latched onto the idea of “sonic seasoning,” or changing flavor through sound. Bakeries might play sweet-sounding wind chimes or tinkling piano music so they can use less sugar in their pastries, for example, says Spence. At home, slower music is better than fast, since up-beat tempos might encourage you to eat more, he says. And when the tunes are too loud, you might not taste your food as much, which could encourage you to add more unhealthy flavorings, like salt or sugar.
Give your dessert a sweet name
“We rarely think about what we call a dish we serve in a home environment,” says Spence. But giving your after-dinner treat a formal name that includes the word “sweet” can actually affect how it tastes: “Merely calling something a ‘sweet dessert’ makes it taste sweeter than if you just call it ‘dessert,'” says Spence. So next time you bake brownies, call them Sweet Black Bean Brownies—and you may need to eat less of them to satisfy your craving. It might feel silly, Spence says, but it just might work.