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by Lucy McCarraher & Annabel Shaw


How to Change Your Eating Habits

Are you someone who likes to eat popcorn in the cinema? I am; it’s a built-in part of the enjoyment of the whole experience – though not in the theatre, where I just still crave the childhood treat of a little tub of ice cream in the interval. It’s silly, really, because I never buy popcorn on any other occasion, and I only eat ice cream when I’ve bought it for guests or children in my own home. Or do I? Let’s be honest; sometimes when I’m feeling tired or fed up, I will go and see if there’s some ice cream lurking in the freezer and have a surreptitious bowl to cheer myself up. And chocolate… let’s not go there.

The fact is, when we associate a particular kind of food with a pleasant experience, we’ll seek it out to boost our mood in other situations. Research on chocolate has shown that, contrary to what we like to believe, it doesn’t in itself make us feel happier. "There is some slight evidence that chocolate triggers the release of opiate-like chemicals in the brain but really its relationship with our emotions operates in the reverse direction," says Professor Andy Smith of Cardiff University. "We seek out a chocolate snack when we feel upset or are emotional because, in the past, we have had pleasant associations with it. That is why it is a comfort food."

It’s all too easy to create an association with a particular kind of food or, indeed, a subconscious habit. An experiment reported in the August 2011 issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin shows just how much our past experiences influence our eating habits; but also offers some hope for simple ways in which we can break habits that we want to.

The researchers gave people a bucket of either nice, fresh popcorn or stale, week-old popcorn just as they were going into a cinema to watch a film. Some of the audience were habitual popcorn eaters and some were not. The film goers who didn't usually eat popcorn in the cinema ate far less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn because it didn’t taste as nice. Duh! Obviously, you would think.

But viewers who usually ate popcorn while watching movies, ate about the same amount of popcorn whether it was fresh or stale. In other words, the ingrained habit of eating popcorn in the cinema overrode the fact that the stale popcorn didn’t even taste nice.

"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 David Neal, lead author of the study, who was a psychology professor at USC when the research was conducted and now heads a social and consumer research firm.

"People believe their eating behaviour 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, and they also gave popcorn to a control group who watched movie clips in a meeting room – an environment not normally associated with popcorn. In the meeting room, even habitual film-watching/popcorn eaters ate much less stale popcorn than fresh, demonstrating how much environmental cues can trigger automatic eating behaviour.

But there is hope for those of us who overeat, or eat the wrong foods because of ingrained habits or associations.

In another experiment, the researchers tested a simple disruption of automatic eating habits. Once again using stale and fresh popcorn, they asked participants going into a film to eat popcorn, but this time using either 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, viewers ate much less of the stale than the fresh popcorn, and this worked even for those with strong film viewing/popcorn eating habits.

So if you’re trying to change eating habits, check whether there are times and places when your body and mind have come to expect a certain type and amount of food, and avoid or change them. There are ways of tricking your brain, such as using smaller plates to contain smaller portions, and your body by drinking a glass of water before you eat a meal. Or simply try eating with the wrong hand.

"It's not always feasible for dieters to avoid or alter the environments in which they typically overeat," Wendy Wood said. "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." And then there’s also the Hawthorne Effect, which shows that just paying attention to what we do, results in our doing it better. More on this and taking control of your eating habits in The Real Secret Step 5, “Healthy Body”.

Posted by Lucy

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