Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Fat Habits

In the midst of fat season -- the time of longer nights that provide more time for munching -- some recent advice about eating is welcome. And a bit comforting.

Several studies suggest that eating is often an automatic behavior triggered by environmental cues that people don’t recognize or can’t ignore. In other words, it’s not all my fault.

As might be expected, the media have jumped on this notion.

One summary in the Los Angeles Times, which has been picked up in scads of other publications, cites psychologist Wendy Wood (photo) of Duke’s Social Science Research Institute, who studies how habits influence everyday behaviors, including food choices. Some of her work is reported here and here, and another interesting study by Rand Corp. scientists is reported here.

It turns out that perhaps 45 percent of human behavior is repetitious and unthinking. And Woods and others have found that people fall back on their habits, such as buying fast food or scarfing up doughnuts in the conference room, even when they intend to do otherwise.

A possible silver lining is that by changing their “food environment,” people can reduce their chances of acting on autopilot habits. For example, if you regularly stop for an extracreamy latte and pastry on the way to work, change your commuting route. If you tend to raid the refrigerator, put more healthful foods on the handiest shelf.

Many observers also suggest that government has a role to play in creating “safer” food environments by, for example, curbing food advertising and limiting access to ready-to-eat foods. Good luck with that -- expect lots of cries of Big Brother -- but it certainly is food for thought.

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