In a new paper by USC researchers, bad eating habits were shown to persist even when the food didn’t taste very good; but the best nugget of the study, perhaps, is the revelation of a surprisingly easy way in which to counter bad eating habits.
Researchers gave people entering a movie theater a bucket of either just-popped popcorn or week-old popcorn. People who don’t generally eat popcorn during movies ate much less of the stale popcorn, but moviegoers who indicated that they typically had popcorn at the movies ate about the same amount of popcorn whether it was fresh or stale. The conclusion: for people accustomed to eating popcorn at the movies, it made no difference whether the popcorn tasted good or not.
“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,” said lead author David Neal, who was a psychology professor at USC when the research was conducted.
“People believe their eating behavior is largely activated by how food tastes. Nobody likes cold, spongy, week-old popcorn,” said corresponding author Wendy Wood, Provost Professor of Psychology and Business at USC. “But once we’ve formed an eating habit, we no longer care whether the food tastes good. We’ll eat exactly the same amount, whether it’s fresh or stale.”
According to a press release for the paper, the researchers also gave popcorn to a control group watching movie clips in a meeting room, rather than in a movie theater. In the meeting room, a space not usually associated with popcorn, it mattered a lot if the popcorn tasted good. Outside of the movie theater context, even habitual movie popcorn eaters ate much less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn, demonstrating the extent to which environmental cues can trigger automatic eating behavior.
“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.”
Also surprising is what researchers found by testing a simple disruption of automatic eating habits: Once again with stale and fresh popcorn, the researchers asked moviegoers to eat popcorn either with their dominant or non-dominant hand.
When using the non-dominant hand, moviegoers ate much less of the stale than the fresh popcorn, and this worked even for those with strong eating habits. Using the non-dominant hand disrupted eating habits to cause people to pay attention to what they were eating.
Could mindful eating be as simple as switching hands?