How Food Cues Makes Us Eat More

Food and behavior researcher Brian Wansink conducted a study where he brought a group of people into a movie theater and separated them into two groups. The first group got a medium size bucket of popcorn, the second group recieved an extra large bucket of popcorn.
The catch was that the popcorn wasn’t fresh. In fact it was purposely stale. It was popped five days earlier and stored in sterile conditions until it was stale enough to squeak until it was eaten. However the study subjects had no idea, they were just happy to be watching a free movie with free popcorn.
After the movie, Wansink tallied how much popcorn was eaten. Amazingly, there were only 2 people who did not eat the popcorn out of the entire group! But that’s not all, the big-bucket group ate on average 173 more calories than the medium bucket group. Bear in mind that the only difference was the size of the popcorn bucket. This was 53% more! Give them a lot and they eat a lot, and this was 5 day old stale popcorn!
Why did almost everybody eat the popcorn? Because they were distracted by the movie, because everybody else was eating it, and because eating popcorn at a movie is the socially accepted thing to do. The environment trumped their taste buds as it almost always does.
Make junk foods and the foods you tend to overeat “inconvenient.” Put the ice cream in the garage or basement freezer and the cookies and chips in bins in the back of the pantry. Put the foods you want to eat (cut up fruit, yogurt, and veggies) out or in the front. Stack the deck in your favor with what you keep in your office drawer or at the front of your refrigerator because when you are hungry and out of time – the most convenient is likely to be the choice.

Beyond convenience, studies show that visible foods trigger eating in a way that is difficult to resist. One study found that secretaries reached into a clear candy bowl 71% more times than a white colored one. Visibility makes us “too mindful” of food. Neurochemically, the anticipation of food trips secretions that add to our craving and our overeating.
Unless you want to battle or overeat all day – don’t leave food, soda or items you really don’t want to eat- out. Don’t expect children to resist overeating snacks that are always visible.
Use visibility as a deterrent. Given that one of  Wansink’s studies showed that leaving the chicken bones from eating wings out on the table made people eat less, don’t get a clean plate – leave visible evidence of what you have already eaten in front of you.
Visual Cues as Guides
Historically many people will tell you that from an early age they were trained to use the plate as their norm for consumption (“the Clean Plate club”), rather than their bodily sense of fullness. Most can’t shake it.
In one of his most noted studies, “Bottomless Bowls,” Brian Wansink demonstrates how people’s use of visual cues makes them unable to correctly detect how much they are eating. In two groups, one eating out of normal soup bowls and one eating out of soup bowls rigged up from the bottom to keep refilling, those with the re-filling bowls not only did not recognize their bowls were refilling – they reported eating a similar amount as those in the normal soup bowl group. They had actually consumed 73% more soup.
If you are stuck with the clean plate club – use a smaller plate and a smaller glass and that will be a safer guide. In this culture of super-size and “Big Gulp” it is easy to lose perspective as well as your body’s sense of overload. Fill all the food you plan to eat on one plate- let be your portion. If, as they suggest at a buffet, you keep taking a new plate( resist this) – there is no telling how much you will eat.
Mindless Eating
Anything that takes our focus off the food makes us more likely to overeat. People eat more in front of TV, while reading, sitting at their desks, and snacking in the movies because they are eating in a mindless way.
If eating while viewing is a treasured activity – plan for it. Plan what you will eat and dish out the portion. Remember- people with big ice cream bowls dished out 31% more ice cream!
Social Influence
Research has found that smoking, deciding to get the flu shot, and taking vitamins are all socially contagious behaviors. But our friends have even more influence on how much we eat and drink. They affect our consumption norms and expectations.
Professors Fowler and Christakis found that having a friend who is gaining weight makes you 57% more likely to do so yourself. They consider that consciously or unconsciously, people use what others are eating as a gage for themselves- be it the oversized fries or the chocolate dessert.
Rather than getting mindlessly swept into overeating – plan what you will order before you meet your friend or go out with your partner.
Order extra water or a non-alcoholic beverage you like so that you can continue to drink while your companion continues to eat.
Divide and conquer- if your partner or friends are game, plan on dividing everything – you get to taste without overeating.

When you consider how easy it is to overeat without realizing what you are doing, slowing down or stopping can begin to feel overwhelming.
Consider experimenting with taking back control.
Try one of these simple strategies. In the long run in many ways: “Less can be more.”


Sweets in the workplace are just part of the problem. Your workplace could be  a minefield of temptations, so you need to have a good offensive strategy – and that means keeping foods out of sight (and mind), and making sure you have healthy alternatives available.  I had one patient who put a mini-refrigerator in her office to stash her lunch and healthy snacks – so she could avoid the lunch room altogether.
Vending machines have a way of calling out to you – especially around 3 or 4 PM when you’re hitting an afternoon slump.  So again, make that food harder to get.  Maybe you don’t keep cash with you at work, or maybe you find another route to the restroom that doesn’t take you past the vending machine.  Better yet, bring healthy snacks to work with you – some fresh fruit, a handful of nuts, some low fat cheese and whole grain crackers, or a carton of yogurt.
Here’s something else that helps.  Next time you’re faced with food that you know you shouldn’t have – and probably don’t even really want – ask yourself this:  “if this (doughnut, cold pizza, stale popcorn) weren’t here, would I go out of my way to get it”?