Sally Hall: If you’re trying to lose weight then it’s better to dine alone

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Some of my most enjoyable moments this year have involved a pot of yoghurt, two friends and a packet of crisps.

Unconventional, perhaps, but fun nonetheless.

Inspired by the work of food scientist and physicist Professor Peter Barham, I was keen to discover the impact of senses such as hearing or touch on perceptions of flavour and texture.

Also, it was pretty funny to persuade my friends to crunch crisps in both of my ears while I attempted to slurp a strawberry yoghurt.

(Professor Barham didn’t indicate in the talk he gave at Leeds University whether alcohol was an acceptable variable in this experiment, but it certainly enhanced my experience).

It’s true that it’s really hard to eat yoghurt when someone is crunching Doritos a millimetre away from your lugholes. Your senses are so stimulated by the crunch sounds it makes you want to chew before you swallow.

This experiment is just one of many instigated by Professor Barham and his academic contemporaries at the forefront of molecular gastronomy.

Another proponent (and long-time collaborator of celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal) is experimental psychologist Professor Charles Spence, who has also used yoghurt in his research.

Professor Spence served yoghurt to his guests in bowls of varying weight, and asked them to rate which they thought was the highest quality. Overwhelmingly, they selected the (identical) yoghurt in the heaviest bowl.

He also found that desserts served on white crockery taste sweeter than desserts served on black crockery (even if they’re exactly the same).

And if dinner guests held something soft in their hands, they were more likely to rate their ice cream as smooth. If they held a bag of gravel in their hands, they tended to rate the same ice cream as grainy.

This fascinating area of food science serves to prove that some of my apparent food foibles are actually perfectly sensible.

I prefer to drink coffee from a takeaway cup, but tea from a mug. Diet Coke only ever tastes good from a can – but beer never does.

Apparently, our food habits may also be subconsciously determined by the dining preferences of our friends.

In the most recent issue of food journal Appetite, a team of scientists reported on a study which showed people consume 31 per cent more pasta and 44 per cent less salad when eating with an overweight companion.

Bizarrely, this research was conducted using people wearing fat suits rather participants with a genuine spare tyre or two.

I wonder whether anyone controlled for the variable of the dining companion eating whatever was quickest and easiest in order to escape as rapidly as possible the oddball in the fake fat suit they were forced to sit next to?

Either way, this does back up long-standing research which shows our consumption is significantly affected by who we eat with.

When we eat with other people, we put away up to 44 per cent more calories than when dining alone. American psychologist John de Castro found that, when dining with seven or more people, we eat up to 96 per cent more than usual. No wonder everyone pigs out at Christmas.

I love food in all its forms, even desserts served on a black plate, and I never take eating for granted.

Finding out more about how we experience food, and what motivates us to eat, is fascinating. And anything that involves eating crisps is always going to go down well with me.

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