Stale Popcorn and Weak Willpower. June 16, 2011.

When my boys were young I frequently found myself at the dinner table polishing off the remnants of dinner they left on their plates. And then that last scoop of mashed potatoes still in the bowl somehow exerted a mystical, hypnotic pull compelling me to finish it off. It was hopeless to resist, I was under the power of an evil voodoo mashed potato spell. At least that is how I explained my behavior when my wife would give me that “you’ve got to be kidding” look. I mean I had just finished an enormous dinner. I couldn’t possibly still be hungry.

Why do we keep eating when we are not hungry? Why do we overeat food that doesn’t even taste that good? Why do we feel like we are on a sacred mission and it is our duty to finish off the last bit of stale potato chips in the bag?

The answer is not voodoo spells. It is something a little more subtle. We are influenced by environmental cues that tell us to keep eating even if we are full and the food is not that tasty.

Dr. Brian Wansink, Professor of Nutritional Science at Cornell University, studied the signals or cues that let us know when we have had enough. He gave every movie patron a medium-size bucket of popcorn or a large-size, “bigger-than-your-head” bucket. The popcorn, on purpose, was stale, five days old and awful. At the end of the movie the buckets were collected and weighed. The big bucket group ate an average of 173 more calories of popcorn – 21 more dips into the bucket, 53% more than those given medium-size buckets.

“People eat more when you give them a bigger container.” If you need help controlling overeating, try downsizing the container. Use smaller bowls for your ice cream, smaller dinner plates, tall skinny glasses for your drinks and you will eat less. Guaranteed. It must be voodoo.

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