Is It Possible To Eat Less And Still Be Happy?
By Justin Cowart
Think about this one – the Happy Meal could actually be the answer to our society’s obesity epidemic.
Just hear me out – it’s not the actual contents of the McDonald’s kid’s meal, but rather the CONCEPT of it.
From the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business as well as the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management and Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences have been able to find out that by offering a small incentive with a meal, it consistently helps motivate adults and kids to willingly choose smaller portions.
According to fMRI studies (also known as functional magnetic resonance imaging), the brain is able to respond to a gift card, small toy, or even a lottery ticket in the same way it does to a cheesy pizza or mouthwatering burger.
Martin Reimann, the assistant professor of marketing from the Eller College of Management at the University of Arizona, Ramona I. Hilliard and Deborah MacInnis, professors of Business Administration and of marketing from USC Marshall as well as Antoine Bechara, the professor of psychology from USC Dornsife, worked in collaboration on their paper now in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.
The authors of this study offer food for thought on why people tend to overeat and also how you can just be happy by not doing it. They say,
“Can Smaller Meals Make You Happy? Behavioral, Neurophysiological and Psychological Insights Into Motivating Smaller Portion Choice.”
The authors went on to write,
“Clearly, eating less is not fun for many people (and may even be a source of short-term unhappiness), as portion size restriction requires discipline and self-control.
“Yet, by combining one shorter-term desire (to eat) with another shorter-term desire (to play) that in combination also address a longer-term desire (to be healthy), different sources of happiness become commensurable.”
The researchers, through a series of experiments, were able to find that the majority of children and even adults who chose a half-sized portion that was paired with a toy or a monetary prize over a full-sized portion without a monetary prize or a toy. For this study, the price of the two options were kept the exact same.
Check this little bit of information out – not only can a small prize help to motivate a healthier meal choice, but the mere prospect of being able to get one is also more motivation than even the prize itself.
In other words, the researchers were able to find that people were more likely to choose a smaller meal with a chance to win, say, a $10 lottery than to actually get a guaranteed reward. The premiums of the studies were the chances to win $10, $50 or even $100.
Martin Reimann said,
“The fact that participants were willing to substitute part of a tangible food item for the mere prospect of a relatively small monetary premium is intriguing.”
Deborah MacInnis also commented by saying,
“Unlike the Happy Meal, which offers a toy every time, adults were willing to sacrifice calories for a gamble.”
While the participants of this study identified their choices with a variety of food and incentives, the researchers collected neuroimaging data with the help of fMRIs. The results of this showed that the combination of nonfood premiums and half-sized portions activates a similar area of the brain (which is specifically known as the striatum, which is associated with desire, reward and motivation) as the full-sized portions alone do.
Additionally, people who were strongly motivated to choose half a pizza or burger – even if they were hungry – did not compensate by eating more calories later.
The study found that desirability of a prize also impacts motivation. While uncertain prizes are highly motivating, further research was able to show that a vague possibility of winning frequent flyer miles was actually more effective than a probable contest that listed the odds of winning.
Reimann goes on to say that,
“One explanation for this finding is that possible premiums may be more emotionally evocative than certainty premiums. This emotional evocation is clearly present in gambling or sports contexts, where the uncertainty of winning provides added attraction and desirability through emotional ‘rushes’ and ‘thrills.’
“The possibility of receiving a premium also evokes a state of hope for the premium’s receipt – a state that is in itself psychologically rewarding.”
Reimann, Bechara and MacInnis all wrote that their findings were able to imply that individuals can actually reward themselves for eating less food with nonfood items.
The authors went on to say,
“This substitution of rewards assists consumers in staying happy and satisfied.”
With the findings from these studies, it’s safe to say that individuals could actually celebrate other achievements – such as a job promotion – with something other than food and still be completely happy.
If you slow down and look at just how much you eat, you can ensure that you are eating less and eating healthier portions, rather than overeating and continuing on a downward spiral into unhealthy eating habits.
We would love to hear all about your thoughts and opinions in the comments below!
Justin Cowart is a writer and researcher that loves to learn more about health, life, consciousness and making the world a better place. He loves music, traveling, meditation, video games and spending time with family and friends. He believes in baby steps and lifestyle changes in order to live a full life. In 2014, he lost around 40lbs from baby steps and emotional detoxing.
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