If you're shunning the stress of preparing a Thanksgiving dinner this year and eating out instead, you might want to approach the restaurant with caution; such an environment could cause you to eat more than you should.
Research from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor suggests that food-related cues, such as images of food and inviting aromas, might trick us into thinking that we are hungry, even if we have just eaten.
But the researchers found that these cues are unlikely to make food taste better, nor do they increase the pleasure of eating them.
Study leader Michelle Joyner, who works in the Department of Psychology at the University of Michigan, and colleagues have published the findings in the journal Clinical Psychological Science.
Thanksgiving is a time for reflection, gratitude, and a delicious meal, all while surrounded by family and friends. However, while the latter might provoke thoughts of a home-cooked feast, some of us prefer to enjoy the food but without all the hard work.
According to a recent survey from the National Restaurant Association, around 1 in 10 people in the United States will eat their Thanksgiving meal at a restaurant this year.
But the new study suggests that restaurant-goers should watch out, because the sight of food and its delicious aroma may trigger hunger pangs, even after a full-blown turkey dinner.
Food cues lead to greater calorie intake
Joyner and her colleagues came to their findings by conducting a laboratory-based experiment in which they assessed how food-related cues impact feelings of hunger, food cravings, and food consumption.
The study included 112 college students, who were all randomly allocated to one of two groups.
One group was sent to a "fast-food laboratory," where the laboratory was styled similar to a fast-food restaurant, with tables and chairs, or booths, images of food, and background music. The other group was sent to a "neutral" laboratory, with no food-related cues.
Both the groups were asked to eat lunch 1 hour before arriving at their designated laboratory. On arrival, they were given tokens that allowed them to purchase fast food such as cheeseburgers, French fries, and milkshakes. The tokens also allowed them to purchase time for activities unrelated to food, such as playing video games.
The team found that subjects who were exposed to food-related cues in the fast-food laboratory displayed more food cravings than those in the neutral laboratory, and they consumed 220 more calories.
Interestingly, there was no difference in how much the two groups liked the taste of the food that they consumed, or how much they enjoyed it.
"Food-related cues can make people want or crave food more, but don't have as much of an impact on their liking, or the pleasure they get from eating the food," says Joyner.
Findings 'have public health implications'
What is more, food-related cues were found to have no impact on participants' purchasing of non-food-related activities, which indicates that the behavioral effects of food cues are food-specific.
Taken together, the researchers say that their findings suggest that food cues may "contribute to overconsumption through increased wanting and hunger. These findings have public health implications for overeating and obesity."
So, you might want to stop and think before you go reaching for that extra slice of pumpkin pie: are you really still hungry? Or is the aroma of delicious food playing tricks on you?