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fast food

Fast food can effect your behaviour whether you eat it or not

Fast food is energy-dense – packed with fat and sugar (there’s sugar in McDonald’s fish fillet patty and Taco Bell’s guacamole, and high-fructose corn syrup even in the hamburger buns). Alas, we’re especially constituted to like that caloric combination – even though it leads to weight gain, clogged arteries, heart attack, high blood pressure and diabetes – because for most of human history, calories were scarce and we became attuned to enjoying them wherever we found them.

Despite the richness of such foods, consumers don’t reduce portion sizes, so they often take in twice as many calories in a sitting as the body needs. Enter obesity.

Fast foodies also consume more sweetened beverages and less milk, less fibre, and fewer fruits and vegetables than is recommended. Most ingredients that end up in fast food are the product of factory farms and are highly processed, grown with high levels of pesticides but providing fewer nutrients. More than a quarter of Americans depend on fast food, and more than 30 percent of people consume some fast food on any given day. Americans spend more than $134 billion on fast food per year.

The data trove doesn’t even hint at a larger issue: the behavioural impact fast food has on us – whether we eat it or not. And the effects go far beyond nutrition and health. You don’t have to consume fast food to be the target of some of its most insidious effects.

A team of Toronto researchers has found even incidental and unconscious exposure to the fast-food symbols all around us makes people feel time-stressed and impatient in settings far outside the eating domain. They prefer time-saving products. Such exposure speeds up the rate at which they read, even when under no time pressure, as one marker of a sense of added time urgency.

Most striking of all, just a glimpse of the golden arches changes our psychology, so people become impatient about financial decisions. They wind up unwilling to postpone immediate gain for future rewards, so they sacrifice savings, against their own economic interest. Exposure to fast-food symbols also seeps into the way we approach leisure.

These reactions are automatic. And that’s a measure of how well fast-food symbols, created by marketers within the last 50 years, have come to embed cultural ideologies about efficiency and saving time.

“The implicit idea of fast food is to satiate yourself as quickly as possible,” observes Sanford DeVoe, one of the researchers. “It represents a culture that emphasizes time efficiency and immediate gratification.”

As faculty members of the Rotman School of Management, DeVoe and study coauthor Chen-Bo Zhong are connoisseurs of time. They’re interested in the ways organizational practices and other environments influence how we think about time. They’ve found people who are paid an hourly wage define happiness in terms of income and are willing to give up free time to earn money, making them reluctant to volunteer.

So exploring food was a bit off the menu – until the researchers reviewed the literature and realized how powerfully environmental cues can activate related goals and shift behaviour. And just as time is a pervasive element, they realized, so are fast-food symbols. Think of all those TV ads. The billboards. It turns out every time we see such marketing devices, they act as psychological primes, reminding us time seems to be speeding up in contemporary society.

“There is a huge industry dedicated to confronting you with the association between food and speed,” says DeVoe. “We’re constantly assaulted with this prime in everyday life.”……

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