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Counting bites, not calories

November 16, 2012


A person cutting into a big sandwich on a bun.

In the study, when people with low self-control were given a counter to monitor the number of times they swallowed, they satiated at rates similar to people with high self-control.

Attention to unhealthy food intake can lead to faster satiation

Of all the dieting aids a person could imagine, a baseball pitch counter might be the least likely.

But using a counting device to monitor the intake of unhealthy food can actually help people become satiated on that food more quickly, according to new research by the University of Minnesota’s Joe Redden.

Redden is an assistant professor of marketing in the Carlson School of Management and an expert on the topic of satiation. In the business sense, satiation occurs when “as we repeatedly consume something, we tend to like it less,” Redden says.

Satiation can pose a challenge for marketers in that people don’t enjoy their favorite things—be they products or television shows—indefinitely. But it also serves a very useful purpose when it comes to eating; that is, when a person is satiated, it’s a mechanism to stop eating.

Not all about willpower


Redden’s research gets at the intersection of self-control, desire, and attention. Conventional wisdom says that self-control is largely rooted in willpower, he says, but this research suggests that declining desire plays a key role.  

In the study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, volunteers were grouped into two categories: those who tested as having high self-control and those with low self-control. The researchers then had them use a counter (similar to those used by baseball coaches to monitor their pitchers) to keep track of how many times they swallowed, with an eye toward unhealthy food.

“When we asked people to do that, for high self-control people it didn’t make much difference, because they’re already doing a good job of that themselves; they have their own internal pitch counter,” Redden says. But for people with low self-control, “when you give them this counter … they now satiated like the high self-control people.”

He says the difference is in the “regulation of attention,” and it’s not just about sheer willpower. And paying more attention to what a person is eating is really not that hard to do.

As for healthy foods, pay no attention


Here’s another reason to be jealous of your friends who eat the healthiest. When it comes to eating the really good stuff—the carrots and leafy greens and broccoli—they tend to satiate less quickly.

“It’s kind of a double whammy,” Redden says. “They get tired of the bad stuff faster and they stay interested in the healthy stuff longer.

“The reason is that they’re switching their attention based on the food, whereas with low self-control people, they kind of pay the same attention no matter what it is.”

Here’s where it gets tricky, especially for people with lower self-control. When using the counters, they also tended to satiate more quickly when eating healthy food, which is not the desired outcome.

As Redden says, “You don’t want to pay attention to the healthy stuff. You want to eat carrots while you watch TV; that’s a good thing.”

The bottom line: It’s when you’re eating the decadent cheesecake that you need to be much more attentive.

“This attention to how much you’re having, it’s [like] a button,” says Redden. “When that button gets pushed, you satiate faster.”

Tags: Carlson School of Management