Studying the Rules of Consumption
> 7/31/2006 9:47:18 AM

Two stories today highlight groups who are learning about the way Americans consume. The first centers on Andrew Geier, a Ph.D. candidate in the Psychology Department at the University of Pennsylvania, who wanted to examine the question of why America is struggling with obesity. Instead of keying in on what, when or why we are eating so much, Geier asked the question how? More specifically, he wanted to know how we choose to eat the amounts that we do. The answer it turns out has nothing to do with hunger or need, and almost everything to do with our surroundings. His research, published in the journal Psychological Science, shows that something he calls "unit bias" determines how much we eat, with some restrictions.

The ideal example, which Geier explains to the AP, of how unit bias works is to take a banana. When we want to eat a banana, we don't consider how hungry we are, the amount or unit that we consume is one banana. Extrapolate that same idea to the bag of chips that you eat with lunch. Chances are you get a 99 cent bag, it's only a dollar, seems like a reasonable amount. You might even know that those sizes contain two servings. But again, chances are when lunch is over, that bag is gone.

Geier and his team put together a number of experiments that all confirmed the same basic idea: we eat what we view as a unit, independent of the actual size or number of servings. Geier proved this using self-serve candy, with different size serving spoons, as well as with different size twinkies. One place where his hypothesis failed however, was in a college cafeteria. When students were given only one of two glass sizes, 10 oz. on one day and 16 on the other, he hypothesized that students would drink less on the day when the 10 oz glasses were used. He was wrong. Turns out students just took two glasses worth.

The second story comes via the BBC, who report today on another group trying to understand the way that food and diet works in our country. This report comes out of Chicago where a state funded program is helping African refugees learn to adjust to an entirely new world. Where once many struggled to find the sustenance they needed to survive, now they find themselves at the opposite end of the spectrum, in a world of excess where they literally can drown in the number of choices available to them.

Often times, the complexity and variety of American food options can overwhelm those unaccustomed to our culture. Because of this, refugees many times can fall into unhealthy habits. As one co-sponsor of the program explained, many refugees see themselves as having to make up for a life lived without many options. They also may not understand that sugary drinks and food stuffs hold little nutritional value. Educators in the program must also help those new to America to understand that there is no need to hoard food. Teachers will take trips to the supermarket with their classes, and even visit their homes to help students understand that there is no reason to stockpile food and that it will indeed go bad.

This program is a great example of how government can work proactively to forestall future health problems. Will these new transplants to our country eventually succumb to the marketing and lobbying behemoth that is corporate food? Maybe. But this type of program gives these new Americans a fighting chance. The hope is that they will never be counted as part of the continuously rising number of obese and overweight Americans. The real question is when will we begin to see similar state and federal dollars being spent on proactive programs to deal with actual American citizens' out of control diets? Perhaps putting Andrew Geier in touch with someone in Washington isn't a bad place to start.

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