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What Really Makes You Feel Satisfied by a Meal?

Posted Aug 30 2012 12:00am

We’ve talked about the experience of eating in a casual dining restaurant and the negative effects of focusing on value to define a good meal. Now try to recall a really great experience you may have had while eating at an expensive restaurant.

Many different elements merged together to enhance your experience: the taste, texture, aroma, and presentation of the food, together with the ambiance created by the décor and soft music, the service – from the parking valet at the curbside, to the host greeting you and the server’s attention and knowledge, all combining to create a feeling of total satisfaction that made it worth every penny.

You ate slowly and savored every bite. Of course, you were paying a lot per morsel of food, so part of this is because you want to get your money’s worth. But you really chose to go there because of the memorable experience you expected to have. The expectation was not that you would leave the restaurant feeling full or having saved money; it was about the total sensory enjoyment of the experience. In fact, if you left the restaurant feeling stuffed, it would actually have taken away from your overall enjoyment.

When the focus is on quantity, the cue to stop eating comes primarily from one sensory experience: the physical feeling of fullness that’s related to the sense of touch. The total sensory experience of the high-end restaurant meal, on the other hand, includes the sense of touch, namely, the texture of the food in your mouth, but it also includes the senses of smell and taste when eating the food, the sense of sight from the presentation and décor, and the sense of hearing from the soft music and quiet murmur of conversation.

So when the focus is on the quality of the meal rather than the quantity of food consumed, less food is required to attain the feeling of satisfaction that signals you to stop eating. As Barbara Rolls writes, “Satiation, the end of hunger, is affected not merely by your previous experience with the food and the visual cues you get about its size, but by…smelling, chewing, and tasting the food; even the act of swallowing is important. These sensory experiences…play a role in satiety.”

Imagine two pillars, both of the same height, one made of a single block of concrete and the other made of several sections. Now think of these two columns as two different approaches to eating. The first approach relies on the feeling of fullness and mild discomfort that comes from the experience of pressure on the stomach wall. The amount of food consumed is the cue to stop eating.

The second approach is represented by the other column which, in addition to quantity, is made up of flavor, aroma, texture, presentation, and ambiance. All of these elements together add up to a very satisfying sensory experience. As a result, the person who takes that approach to eating is able to feel satisfied with a much smaller quantity of food. The overall sensory experience of satisfaction is the cue to stop eating. The difference between these two approaches is not about the quality of the food itself, but by the attention paid to it. This is mindful awareness.

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