A new study shines a light on something that people who love junk food should pay attention to. Anyone trying to stick to a diet should read on as well. Anyone wanting to shed some pounds, come closer. This study reveals why people eat out of habit, even when the food is stale, and offers health tips to fix mindless snacking.
Popcorn goes with movies, chips go with television. People eat in certain environments. The study showed why these eating habits occur even when the food doesn’t taste good. As for the health advice: there are surprisingly simple ways we can counter our bad eating habits.
The experiment: researchers gave people about to enter a movie theater a bucket of either just-popped, fresh popcorn or stale, week-old popcorn. Moviegoers who didn’t usually eat popcorn at the movies ate much less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn.
But moviegoers who said they regularly had popcorn at the movies ate about the same amount of popcorn whether it was fresh or stale. It made no difference whether the popcorn tasted good or not; it was a habitual act to buy it and eat it.
When we do this, our brains associate the food with that environment and make us keep eating as long as those environmental cues are present. This has important implications for understanding overeating and the conditions that may cause people to eat even when they are not hungry or do not like the food. An eating habit is so strong that we’ll eat something that actually tastes poor because we just do it in certain situations.
The movie theater proved a very strong environmental cue to eat stale popcorn. Sometimes willpower and good intentions are not enough, and we need to trick our brains by controlling the environment instead.
In another movie theater experiment, the researchers tested a simple disruption of automatic eating habits. Once again using stale and fresh popcorn, the researchers asked participants about to enter a film screening to eat popcorn either with their dominant or non-dominant hand.
Using the non-dominant hand seemed to disrupt eating habits and cause people to pay attention to what they were eating. When using the non-dominant hand, moviegoers ate much less of the stale popcorn than the fresh popcorn, and this worked even for those with strong eating habits.
And there we have one very simple way to help kill such mindless consumption of junk food. Dieters could actively disrupt the established patterns of how they eat through simple techniques, such as switching the hand they use to eat.