Why do you eat? Because you’re hungry, right? And you stop eating because you’re full. Not according to the work of psychologists like Brian Wansink, David Neal and Wendy Wood. From their research, we’re learning how much of eating is simply habitual. We are actually triggered by cues from our environment that it’s time to eat or that we should be hungry, or we eat simply out of the habit of putting food into our mouths without even noticing.
In 2010, Neal and Wood, along with Mengju Wu and David Kurlander, recruited 98 people to participate in an experiment at a movie theater. The scientists gave all the participants popcorn, showed them the same movie trailers, then gave them a survey asking to rate how hungry they were when they arrived and how frequently they ordered popcorn at the movies. The catch was the popcorn: Half the participants were given fresh, delicious, buttery popcorn, and the other half were given unsalted, week-old, completely stale popcorn. The result? People who reported they frequently ate popcorn at the movies consumed the same amount of both the fresh and the stale popcorn, regardless of how hungry they were. If eating popcorn at the movies was a habit, they ate popcorn without thinking about how hungry they were — even if it tasted like foam packing peanuts.
According to Wansink’s research at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, if you recorded every food decision you made, including all of the food you either ate or didn’t eat and every portion size you selected, you would still be unaware of 221 food-related decisions per day. We make so many mindless eating decisions that Wansink wrote an (excellent) book about it called “Mindless Eating.”
The result of all this mindless eating is apparent from our collective waistline. The average American gains a pound a year between ages 25 and 60 — often without noticing how it happened — precisely because of mindless eating. But there’s no need to fear self-sabotage. Learn how to use your environment to your advantage and mindlessly lose weight instead of accidentally packing on the pounds:
1. Switch up where and when you eat.
As noted in the popcorn experiment, eating is a lot more about context than hunger, so changes to the time and place you eat actually impact the amount of food you eat. For example, people who were given the stale popcorn in a meeting room and asked to watch different videos noticed the terrible popcorn immediately — and stopped eating it. So if you normally eat lunch at your desk, eat it in the break room. Or if you eat breakfast on the go, wake up earlier, and try eating at the table.
2. Use smaller plates.
According to Wansink’s work, the container we put our food into impacts how much of it we eat. Using smaller plates can reduce the amount we eat by 31% without us even noticing. And that holds true even if we go back for seconds and thirds! The very fact that we have to think about it reduces the amount we eat even more.
3. Keep food at arm’s length at parties.
“Party binging,” as Wansink calls it, is when people eat thousands of extra calories without noticing. I advise my clients to get scientific at parties, and it can work for you, too. Get out a tape measure, and measure the length of your arm. Now make sure that you hang out and socialize at least that far away from the bar or the food table at your next party. Seriously, not being physically near the food will keep it from mindlessly jumping into your face. You can still enjoy food, drinks and the party, but keeping your distance ensures that you are choosing to enjoy it instead of eating on autopilot — without noticing or enjoying any of the extra calories.