Creatures of Habit: Do You Eat Just Because?
There’s a very famous eatery I go to every time I visit family in Chicago. It’s a part of the nostalgia, so I allow myself this treat knowing full well it’s not the healthiest option calorie-wise. The trouble is, it no longer tastes as good as it once did. The last time I visited my mother-in-law commented mid-meal that the taste had changed. As I took another bite, I had to agree. Yet, before she said something, I was perfectly content with my usual dish. What’s wrong with me? Had I truly become so used to going to this place that I stopped paying attention to the taste of the food? I read the findings of a new study and it seems to corroborate my experience perfectly. In that situation, I was eating purely out of habit.
Published in the November 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, the study, led by researchers from the University of Southern California, UC-San Diego, and Duke University, conducted two studies on about 100 participants. The first study served up fresh or week-old popcorn to two types of people: one group regularly ate popcorn at the movie theater, while the other did not. In the movie theater, regardless of whether the popcorn was fresh or stale, those who regularly ate movie popcorn ate the same amount of food, while the non-habitual ate less stale popcorn. When participants were presented the same food in a conference room, both habitual and non-habitual popcorn eaters ate less of the stale stuff.
Change Your Environment
Slowing down your cravings for unhealthy food may be as easy as changing where you eat. Brian Wansink, who has studied mindless eating extensively, shared his advice to “mindlessly eat better” with attendees of this past year’s conference of the American Psychological Association saying, “The secret is to change your environment so it works for you rather than against you.” If you’re used to eating in the break room or your desk at work, try some place new. At home, resolve to only eat at a dining table, not a tray table in front of the television. You might also switch to a smaller plate, or stop eating directly out of packaging. Turn off distractions and you may find that you enjoy that peach or plum much more than you do your regular candy bar.
Are You Hungry or is It Lunch Time?
Has your lunch break become as automatic as checking your work email first thing in the morning? Additional findings of the study showed, even when the habitual eaters were less hungry, they ate similar portions of popcorn. The non-habitual eaters ate less. If you can help it, only eat when you’re hungry. This may be difficult for families with children on a tight schedule or those who have to eat lunch at a set time, but your breakfast and snacks are all up to you. Think about ways you can shuffle the time so that you’re not just eating out of habit.
The second study the researchers conducted had participants use their dominant or non-dominant hand while eating the movie popcorn. Habitual eaters ate less stale popcorn when they used their non-dominant hand. In a press release, co-author of the study, Wendy Wood of USC, had this to say, “It's not always feasible for dieters to avoid or alter the environments in which they typically overeat. More feasible, perhaps, is for dieters to actively disrupt the established patterns of how they eat through simple techniques, such as switching the hand they use to eat.” It might get messy, but I think I’ll be testing out my left hand fork skills when I go back to Chicago.
How have you changed your environment to control overeating and stop eating out of habit?