According to a new study, getting into the habit of ritualistic eating while watching television could lead to mindless munching, even if you’re full and don’t really enjoy the taste that much.
“When we’ve repeatedly eaten a particular food in a particular environment, our brain comes to associate the food with that environment and make us keep eating as long as those environmental cues are present,” says researcher David Neal, a psychology professor at University of Southern California.
In one of the study experiments, scientists handed out popcorn to people as they walked into a movie theater. They received either a bucket of fresh popcorn, or a bucket of stale, week-old popcorn. They found that if a participant indicated they regularly ate popcorn at the movies, they consumed the same amount whether they had a fresh or stale bucket. Those who said they rarely ate popcorn at the movies ate much less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn.
Many of us think our eating behavior is triggered by tasty foods, but this shows that we’re likely to eat the same amount of food whether it’s good or bad. It’s not like anyone enjoys spongy week-old popcorn, but this study does suggest that our environment is a very powerful source in triggering cravings and unhealthy eating habits.
If you’re reading this and wondering how you’re going to get through the next episode of Modern Family without that nightly brownie sundae, don’t think you have to go to a friend’s house to change the environment. Sit in the same chair, wear the same pajama pants, but whatever you do, don’t eat that sundae. Simply disrupting the habitual behavior is enough to curb it and make you more aware of the food choices you’re making simply because of your environment.
Another experiment was done where researchers asked moviegoers to eat their popcorn, whether stale or fresh, with either their dominant or non-dominant hand. Those who used their non-dominant hand ate considerably less stale popcorn. This suggests that doing something as simple as switching up the way you eat could cause you to eat less. If you’re eating a bowl of cereal with your non-dominant hand, you’ll wolf it down more slowly and perhaps get full before you empty the bowl, or you might not even bother if you have to put in that much effort.
Are you a habitual eater? Would you be willing to make conscious change in order to slow down your snacking?