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The Lost Art of Chewing

  • A Slice of Delectable Chocolate Cake
    A Slice of Delectable Chocolate Cake
    People who imagined eating this slice of chocolate cake thought it tasted better and they had a better eating experience.
    Photo and cake by Melissa McKelvey
  • Have Your (Chocolate) Cake
    Have Your (Chocolate) Cake
    After thinking about eating a chocolate cake, each of the subjects got their own cake.
    Photo and cake by Melissa McKelvey

Americans are world champion speed-eaters. And we’re not just talking about those freaks at the hot dog eating contests. If you watch a typical American eat lunch, you’d think he was going for the gold, too. Sadly, for most of us, meals are nothing more than neglected pit stops in an overloaded day. When was the last time you finished a meal but couldn’t remember eating it?

The William & Mary Psychology Department feels your pain. Last year, Professor Jennifer Stevens and graduate student Shereen Singer set out to discover a healthier way of thinking about food. How exactly? By thinking about food. 

Stevens and Singer set up an experiment in which research subjects were brought into a room, shown a delectable chocolate cake, and told that at the end of the session they would have a chance to eat it. Now this is our kind of research!

The first group of subjects was read a script that prompted them to imagine eating the chocolate cake, slowly, savoring every satisfying bite. The second group of research subjects was told to imagine taking a walk in the woods. And the third group was told just to sit there and wait.

The hypothesis was that the people who imagined eating the cake would eat less while the other two groups would go hog wild. “We thought they would eat a ton of it,” says Stevens. “We gave each of them a whole cake.”

Surprisingly, it turned out that all three groups ate, on average, the exact same amount of cake. “What did change,” explains Stevens, “was the perception of the experience. People who imagined eating the cake thought it tasted better and had a better experience.” They also thought it was healthier for them.

So what’s the take home message? Thinking about your food might not make you eat less, but you’ll enjoy it more. And isn’t that what eating is supposed to be about, anyway? Unless you’re going for 67 wieners and buns in 12 minutes. Then it’s about having good health insurance.