Once upon a time, the tips and tricks of weight loss were basically free: use smaller plates! Drink a glass of water before every meal! Use blue light bulbs in your fridge so your food looks moldy and less appetizing! But in the new era of “smart” everything, people have come up with a smart fork that vibrates when you eat too quickly. Perhaps, if we just stop mindlessly scarfing down our food and instead eat slowly and deliberately and really luxuriate in every bite of that plain oatmeal, we’ll eat less and lose weight.
Unfortunately, it’s not clear this works. A study published in the journal Appetite found that a vibrating smart fork made people eat more slowly — but it didn’t make them feel more full or eat less, which is really what people care about. The researchers randomly assigned 114 people to either eat with a normal fork or a vibrating fork (the Slow Control 10s Fork, which vibrates and flashes red every time you eat faster than one bite every 10 seconds). Both groups ate the same meal of 800 grams, or 1.7 pounds, of pasta bolognese. (My colleague, who’s Italian, was horrified at how much pasta this is.)
Before eating, participants completed some surveys about how quickly they thought they generally ate. They gobbled down the pasta bolognese, and then filled out more surveys about how quickly they thought they ate this time, whether they ate significantly slower or faster than usual, plus how full they felt. If there was any food left, the scientists collected it, weighed the leftovers, and subtracted that number from the 800 grams to see how much the subjects ate.
People using the smart fork did take fewer bites per minute, though not by a lot: 5.28 bites versus 4.55. Overall, the smart fork group took nine minutes and 44 seconds to finish, while the others ate their meal in eight minutes and 12 seconds. There were no differences in bite size, and no real differences in how much the two groups ate and how satiated they felt.
There is one major weakness in this study design. There are studies that show that eating slowly makes us feel more full, because it gives our body more time to register the food. Most of these studies, though, say the effect takes 20 minutes to set in — and these participants ate the entire meal in 10. Maybe if the researchers specifically asked the participants to take a long time, instead of letting them eat at their own pace, there would have been more of an effect. But then the study wouldn’t have been realistic.
The reality is that most people don’t have the luxury of taking hours-long meal breaks anyway; I eat most of my lunch in 20 minutes, sad as that is to say. And even if the fork did reduce how much you ate, there’s little guarantee you would keep using it. Jessica Roy at New York Magazine wrote about her experience with a similar “food-shaming fork” and noted that “The No. 1 problem with the food-shaming fork is that I keep forgetting to use the food-shaming fork.” My colleague Alessandra Potenza once tried a gadget that shocks you to remind you not to do something — in her case, bite her nails. It worked at first. But after one week, she writes, “I resumed biting my nails more fiercely than ever, and I did something I found extremely liberating: I ignored the Pavlok on my wrist.”
The smart fork is just one example of well-intentioned devices that aren’t fun to use and that most people eventually abandon. Fitness trackers are another example. We get all excited at first, but, according to one research firm, a third of owners of smart wearables ditch them after six months. They can even backfire.
This isn’t to say that weight-loss tips don’t work. But the most effective tricks, like using smaller plates, aren’t annoying or disruptive. Ideally, you forget about them after a while and they become part of your life. It’s not really that frustrating to use slightly smaller plates. It is frustrating to have your utensil vibrate constantly while you’re starving.
We all want to believe that a cool new gizmo will make us change our habits. But if nobody can force us to keep using them, we might as well not have bought them in the first place.