Weight loss tip: eat your words

Lesley Dobson / 29 November 2017

Is it a snack or a meal? It’s all in your head – and then on your hips.



How you view your food can make a big difference to how much you eat. And the key to why we sometimes eat more than at other times can depend on how we label our food.

Informative, in-depth and in the know: get the latest health news and info with Saga Magazine. Find out more

A study published recently looked into what can make us eat more. It found that how we categorise food, can make a difference to how much we eat.

‘Snacking can drive us to eat more, and I think it involves language, and framing how we look at food.’ explains psychologist Jane Ogden Professor of Health Psychology, at the University of Surrey. ‘It can change how we feel about food, and the impact it has on us. How we eat is also important, as that can also affect how we think about food.’

The results of the study showed that using the word ‘snack’ instead of the word ‘meal’, changed the amount of food people ate later on in the day. ‘I think this is really interesting,’ said Jane Ogden. ‘The food industry is sort of bombarding us with food called ‘snacks’, and this encourages us to treat them as snacks, even though they may have, say, 650 calories in them.

‘We may pick up food on the go, such as fish and chips or burgers, which are inexpensive to the point where they seem to be sold almost at a discount – say £6.30 – so we tend not to focus on them as food. The same tends to happen if food comes in a paper bag or a cardboard box, and you eat it standing up, often you tend to forget that you’ve eaten it.

‘I think this is because you haven’t had to prepare it, cook it, and wait for your food to be ready. When you cook a meal for yourself, or go out for a restaurant meal, it takes some time. The food has to be prepared and cooked, which involves waiting, and then you eat it, sitting down, with cutlery, glasses and your food on a plate. It becomes a meal event, whereas, if your food arrives almost immediately, and you eat it straightaway, then you’re out of the café (or your kitchen) within 10 minutes. It’s much easier to discount food produced and eaten in this way.’

‘It’s almost as if we have a check list in our heads, where we think meal eaten, job done, and we wait for the next meal. This doesn’t seem to happen when we eat food as a snack. You may be eating the same calories, but framing our food as a meal or a snack makes a difference to how we feel about it.’

Professor Ogden’s study involved 80 women. They were divided into four groups, and all were given the same amount of pasta. The pasta was labeled ‘eat this snack’ or ‘eat this meal’. The women were then divided into four groups of 20. Each group was given one of these options;

  • Food labeled ‘eat this snack’ eaten from a plastic pot, using a plastic fork, while standing up
  • Food labeled ‘eat this snack’, eaten from a ceramic plate, using a metal fork, while sitting down at a table
  • Food labeled ‘eat this meal’, eaten from a plastic pot, using a plastic fork, while standing up
  • Food labeled ‘eat this meal’ eaten from a ceramic plate, using a metal fork, while sitting down at a table.

Half of the group was told that the pasta was a snack, and half were told it was a meal.

About 10 minutes after eating these snacks/meals, all the participants were asked to take part in a taste test of a range of foods (Hula Hoops, animal biscuits, M&Ms and Mini Cheddars).  They were encouraged to eat as much as they wanted to. Professor Ogden’s team measured how much each person ate, as the point of this exercise was to see how much all the participants ate when they didn’t have any restrictions.

‘The change in language changed the amount they ate.’ Study author Professor Ogden

‘We found that the women who had eaten the pasta that was labeled as a ‘snack’ ate more in the taste test than those who had been told the pasta was a meal,’ says Jane Ogden. ‘In the participants’ heads the food was coded differently, but the actual calories they consumed were the same. That’s what I think is interesting, the change in language changed the amount they ate.

‘On the other hand, if people call what they’re eating a meal, they then tend to think ‘I’m going to have three meals a day, and this is one of them. Then they wait for the next meal, which comes at meal time, and they’ll be less likely to snack in between. This can be a useful management strategy – call your food a meal, and eat it as a meal.’

‘If you eat food sitting down at a table, as a meal, on a plate, with a knife and fork, you eat less later on in the day.’

Another part of the study was looking at where we eat our food. ‘If you eat food sitting down at a table, as a meal, on a plate, with a knife and fork, you eat less later on in the day than if you eat standing up, as a snack, out of plastic pots,’ says Professor Ogden.

Other ways to be more aware of how much you’re eating include calorie-counting, as this may help you concentrate on what you’re eating. Mindful eating can also help, as you think about your food while you’re eating it, without distractions, such as the TV.

In France most people eat three meals a day (with little or no snacking in between). Meals are usually a family affair, where people take their time over their food, talking over the events of the day. This may be part of the reason why the French have one of the lowest BMI measurements in Europe. 

Try 12 issues of Saga Magazine for just £12

Subscribe today for just £12 for 12 issues...

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.