One of the things I read a lot about when I was researching weight loss is the physiology of hunger. On one hand, hunger is so simple, elemental and familiar at first blush it seems impossible that you could study it (much less learn to adjust it, which was my ultimate goal).
But one of the most important things i learned is that hunger is a psychological state as well as a physiological one: we can be distracted from hunger by excitement or fear, or conditioned to be hungry at particular times of day regardless of our blood sugar. We can be made hungry by proximity to foods with attractive smell, packaging, texture (what chefs and food designers call “mouthfeel”); we can be made hungry by foods that we’ve at a notable times, with friends, or in memorable and pleasant places. We misinterpret fatigue, stress, and thirst as hunger. Proximity to food, or the smell of something delicious, triggers hunger.
In fact, our appetite is so malleable it can be disconnected from a need for calories: in his book The End of Overeating, former FDA commissioner David Kessler argues that food designers—manufacturers, retailers, and restaurants— have become geniuses at creating foods that are not just tasty, but so addictive they stimulate desire among people who are full. Further, obesity appears to have some of the same properties of a communicable disease: it is influenced by large environmental factors, as well as the influence of one’s social circle.
Today, via Andrew Sullivan, I came across this piece by Peter Smith in Good about airline food, and research on the effects of airline environments on taste:
even under optimal conditions, cooked to the exact specifications of the latest celebrity chefs hired to reinvigorate flaccid airline fare, the taste of food changes when you’re inside a parched, hypobaric metal tube that’s vibrating and humming along at 550 miles per hour.
Recently, Germany’s Lufthansa Airlines conducted research inside a stationary Airbus A310 designed to replicate flying conditions. Deutche Welle reported that flyers said their taste buds felt dulled, requiring 20 percent more sugar and salt (explaining the particular appeal of V-8 or a Bloody Mary). In another study published this fall, British and Dutch researchers outfitted volunteers with headphones playing loud background noises and found that the noise made foods appear less salty and sweet. Loud noise did make crunchy foods appear crunchier—more Munchie Mix, anyone?