staggered meal consumption and rationality

A while ago I wrote a paper examining how the number of times we (American adults) eat each day has changed over the past several decades: (surprise!) it’s gone up. By nearly 2 times/day.
A recent study by researchers in the Netherlands compared regular (defined as ) with staggered (defined as a 4 course lunch eaten over the course of 2 hours with 3 meal pauses) meal consumption followed by ad libitum food intake and found that staggered meal consumption facilitated appetite control (measurements of neuropeptide hormones which regulate satiety were higher and those that regulate eating were lower and people reported feeling less hungry), but that these signals DID NOT translate into lower energy intake. Said a little differently; even though people in the staggered meal consumption (which is more like the constant eating we see today) had bodies that were telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they did not need more energy (in the form of calories), and even though those people themselves reported not needing more energy, those people still continued to eat.

Tim recently sent me a story about a lecture that took place at my alma mater. A New York Times Op-Ed columnist, David Brooks, delivered a lecture titled “Social Animal and Higher Education”. The focus of his lecture was about the relationship between emotion and reason in decision making. People don’t reason their way to morality, he argued. Instead, they justify their decisions based on feelings and mental processes that are unconscious. He also argued that formative social and neurological experiences permanently affect how we interact with the world, and that these experiences often determine the direction of our lives.

He gave the example of a University of Minnesota study where scientists examined the attachment patterns of 18-month-old babies and were able to predict with 77 percent accuracy whether a child would graduate from high school. He also gave an example of IQ tests and college admissions exams (like the SATs): these things might predict how well you’ll do in college, but they won’t predict how well you do in life. “If you want to understand who’s going to succeed in life” he said, “go into a kindergarten and ask children to describe which kids in their classroom are friends with each other. It is the children that have complex understandings of social networks that are going to be successful in the real world,” he argued.

What am I talking about? What do these two things have in common? Irrationally emotional behavior. We get messages from our bodies that we are not hungry. If we behaved in a completely rational manner we would stop eating, but we don’t. We are social and emotional creatures when it comes to food. We seek pleasure and have learned to override these messages that we get from ourselves. When making a decision that seems to have no clear answer, we tell ourselves that we will accept the result of a flip of the coin: heads I’ll do it, tales I won’t. But then that coin lands heads up and we have a gut reaction that tells us that we really don’t want to do it. And so we don’t follow that (rationale) path. You might have scored a 1600 on your SATs, but it’s your understanding of the complex social structure of high school (and the business world) that brings emotional (and financial?) fulfillment.

Neither of these things surprise me, really. But it’s nice to think of them being so intimately related.


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