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Study: Habit provokes mindless eating, even when food is stale

Kathleen Blanchard's picture

Researchers say habit, not food taste, can lead us to eat more. The finding is important for understanding how to control food intake when dieting. In an experiment, researchers found even stale food somehow tastes good when we eat out of habit rather than mindfulness.

Food consumption linked to environment

To prove the point that habit drives unhealthy eating, researchers gave moviegoers a bucket of either just-popped, fresh popcorn or week-old, stale popcorn.

People who don't normally eat popcorn at the movies consumed less of either. But those who normally ate popcorn at the movies consumed the same amount, regardless of the stale taste.

The study, which comes from University of Southern California researchers shows food habits are a driving force for eating and that environment plays a big role.

Lead author David Neal, who was a psychology professor at USC, but now heads a social and consumer research firm says, "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."

Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC says "nobody likes spongy week old popcorn", but habits can make us care little about how food tastes.

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As a control, the researchers gave popcorn to people watching movie clips in a meeting room. In a different environment, it did matter whether the food was stale.

"The results show just how powerful our environment can be in triggering unhealthy behavior," Neal said. "Sometimes willpower and good intentions are not enough, and we need to trick our brains by controlling the environment instead."

One way to eat less is to change hands when eating.

In a third experiment, the researchers tested the impact of disrupting normal eating patterns. They asked people going to view a movie to eat with either their dominant or non-dominant hand, once again using fresh or stale popcorn.

Using the non-dominant hand made people more aware and led to less eating.

Switching hands when eating, practicing yoga that teaches mindfulness and paying attention to food environment that can lead to overeating can help break unhealthy food habits. Since it's hard for dieters to change their food environment, the researchers of the study suggest switching hands when you find yourself in a place that provokes eating out of habit. The study shows people often eat even when food tastes bad and is an important note for dieters.

Social Psychology Bulletin
"The Pull of the Past: When Do Habits Persist Despite Conflict With Motives?"
David T. Neal et al.
August 22, 2011, doi: 10.1177/0146167211419863