Breaking Bad Eating Habits

September 2, 2011

2 Min Read
Breaking Bad Eating Habits

LOS ANGELESOld habits die hard. Or do they? A new study from researchers at the University of Southern California revealed that people can curb bad eating habits by using their non-dominant hand to eat. First, though, they showed that people who habitually eat certain food in a certain environment will keep on doing so even if the food tastes bad.

For the study, researchers gave people about to enter a movie theater a bucket of either just-popped, fresh popcorn or stale, week-old popcorn. Those subjects who said they typically eat popcorn at the movies ate the same amount of popcorn, regardless of whether it was fresh or stale. Those who didnt usually eat popcorn at the movies ate much less of the stale popcorn than fresh popcorn.

When weve 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."

The researchers controlled for hunger and whether the participants liked the popcorn they received. 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."

Using your non-dominant hand to eat, they found, is one effective way to snap the brain out of habit mode. In another movie theater experiment using stale and fresh popcorn, the researchers moviegoers to eat the 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 than the fresh popcorn, and this worked even for those with strong movie-popcorn eating habits.

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