There’s a reason you keep picking at unhealthy snacks: it’s called hedonic escalation. Cammy Crolic explains why it’s so hard to walk away from the party buffet.
It’s the end of January and if you’re kicking yourself because you’ve already abandoned your New Year diet, you’re not alone.
Whether you opted for smaller portions, giving up potato chips and chocolate, or just all-round healthy eating with an emphasis on green leafy vegetables, the chances are that your resolution crumbled in the face of a sudden craving for a ‘forbidden’ food or just the urge to eat more and more of that delicious treat that you allowed yourself.
Why is it difficult to stop at just one chip or a small square of chocolate? And why don’t we get the same feelings about celery or steamed kale? My research into hedonic escalation – the way palatable foods taste better and better with each mouthful – may provide a clue.
We are biologically primed to eat a varied diet, which is why we adapt very quickly to some foods and in fact enjoy them less the more we eat. But some foods are notoriously easy to binge on, and it takes a lot longer to lose interest in the taste. In my paper with Chris Janiszewski, Hedonic Escalation: When Food Just Tastes Better and Better, I describe a series of experiments we undertook to understand what contributes to this process.
We found that most people experienced hedonic escalation, or increased enjoyment, with at least one of the foods we used in our experiments. It was linked in particular with foods that contained a combination of flavours, such as cheesy tortilla chips. With each bite, the participants were learning something new about the food and building a multi-layered sensory experience. The first bite gave them a broad brush experience, then with each successive mouthful they were appreciating different taste elements in the food, such as cheesy then salty, then the corn flavour. Unfortunately, healthy, low-calorie food typically does not have so many flavours to explore, which is why you seldom hear anyone complain that they overindulged on spinach.
We also discovered that when people were told in advance which flavours a food contained, they could use that knowledge to identify and appreciate the flavours more easily. This shows that simple marketing activities, such as informing people about the flavours in a food or drink, can increase hedonic appreciation during consumption.
So how can we use this knowledge to break bad snacking habits?
First, if you are already halfway through a packet of potato chips (or halfway down a bottle of good wine) and you want to stop, try eating or drinking something with a totally different taste. For example, if you are teetering on the brink of binging on salty food, try a sip of fruit juice. This will interrupt the hedonic escalation and reduce your compulsion to keep eating.
A further tip is to clean your teeth! This not only interrupts the hedonic escalation with a different taste, but tends to make absolutely any food you eat immediately afterwards taste revolting.
Second, if you find you are craving something nice to eat, give in (to a certain extent) and allow yourself to enjoy it in a controlled way. If you try to deny yourself some chocolate, for example, you are likely to graze, eating a number of foods (such as ice cream, nuts, cookies, or popcorn) in an effort to achieve adequate hedonic escalation. You could end up consuming twice as much as you would have if you’d just eaten the chocolate in the first place.