Whenever we give in to temptation, be it for a helping of something divine, like fine chocolate, or just a so-so piece of saltwater taffy abandoned next to the office coffeepot, there's something more than self-control at work.
Woven into the complexities of food choices and eating behaviors are all sorts of subtle factors that we're likely not even aware of.
Scientists who study these subtle influences are gathered in New Orleans this week at a conference of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior to present fresh research from the field.
As I discuss Wednesday on Here & Now, one fascinating study presented by a researcher from the University of Leeds in the U.K. highlights the potential of an overlooked sensory cue: smell.
Researcher Nicola Buckland was curious to know whether smell could help fend off temptation, so she designed a nifty little experiment: She asked women to smell fresh oranges and chocolate.
Later, she told them to help themselves to the aromatic fruit and chocolate treats. It turns out that women in the study who were trying to diet ate about 60 percent less chocolate after smelling the oranges (compared with how much they ate after smelling the chocolate).
"It might be that the smell of fresh oranges reminded dieters to limit intake of a tempting and diet-forbidden snack," Buckland told me by email. But that might just be in the short term. The study was published in the journal Eating Behaviors, and was funded by Coca-Cola.
Now, of course, when it comes to eating, smell is just one player in this complicated decision-making process. The influences on our preferences seem to begin as early as in the womb.
As we've reported, amniotic fluid can transfer flavor aromas from mom to baby. So perhaps toddlers who like garlic are the kids of garlic-loving moms and were exposed in the first months of life.
Sound — or perhaps background noise or music — is another factor that seems to influence our eating.
As I reported a few years back, in a study from the University of Manchester in the U.K. and Unilever, researcher Andy Woods experimented with varying levels of background noise in a dining room. He found that as it gets louder, people lose their ability to perceive saltiness and sweetness.
"We also found an intriguing link between food liking and background noise preference, such that when the person quite liked the background noise, they reported the food was more liked," Woods told me back in 2011.
But there's only so much distraction that we can take as we're chowing down — especially if we're trying to be mindful about what we eat.
A study by Suzanne Higgs at the University of Birmingham found that people who ate lunch while watching TV or working on their computers were more likely to snack on cookies in the afternoon.
So perhaps this helps make the case that it's best to slow down and savor food to reinforce good habits.
And more evidence to this end? One study found that a six-week mindful eating program helped women learn to eat less while dining out.