Picture this: you go to an afternoon showing of a movie and someone hands you a free soft drink and large popcorn as you head into the theatre.  During the movie, your hand slides into the popcorn bucket and you eat the salty handful.  Your hand keeps unconsciously dipping into the popcorn bucket even though you’ve just eaten lunch .  But, something’s different – the popcorn isn’t fresh.  In fact, it’s 5-day old popcorn – that spells s-t-a-l-e!

Gross, right? Well, this scenario really did happen, to graduate students in Chicago as part of a scientific study about cues that impact our hunger, taste and amounts we eat.  When these test subjects were asked whether they felt they ate too much popcorn and whether the size of the bucket influenced the amount they ate, the majority said that they wouldn’t be tricked. We are logical, intelligent human beings, right? The results showed differently, however. The researchers weighed everyone’s popcorn buckets at the end of the movie and they discovered that those with the largest buckets ate about 50% more popcorn than those with medium popcorn buckets. The bottom line is that if you give people a bigger portion, they’ll eat more!  Did I mention it was stale popcorn?  Surprised?

Different factors play different roles in this scenario: the size of the popcorn container, the distraction of the movie, the sounds of others eating, how much your neighbour was eating, what you usually do or eat at the movies along with other cues. Eating can mean different things to different people. You’ve heard the saying “eat to live or live to eat”. Beyond that, eating has become problematic for some who struggle with their weight and/or strive to be healthy (not mutually exclusive things, by the way).

Researcher and director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, Brian Wansink, was the man behind the stale popcorn, has studied the question of why we eat more than we think and has translated his findings into the very readable book “Mindless Eating” (2007, Bantam).

While I highly recommend the book, here’s an overview of the highlights:

  • Instead of dramatically slashing calories from your eating habits, think smaller – Wansink recommends 20% less (or 20% more exercise), which is easier to cut down and less noticeable.  Add more veggies if you cut down 20% of your meat or pasta serving!
  • Put everything you want to eat on your plate (avoiding going back for seconds & thirds) – the idea is that you tend to eat or drink less if you see what you’ve already eaten/drunk.
  • Control how much you eat by controlling the food package size or plate size – I use this one with my cardiac patients often – you will pour more cereal, pasta or juice if the box, carton or jug is larger.  This is not a ban on big box stores like Costco, Wansink recommends you simply repackage to smaller reusable containers to gain control of your portions.  Smaller plates, bowls or cup sizes have the same impact on how much food we serve.
  • Ban candy dishes and hide away the tempting foods – if the less healthy foods you crave are hard to get to (or better yet unavailable), you will do better keeping to a healthier routine.
  • Jazz up your eating atmosphere – lighting, music and colour play a role in how food tastes, how much you eat, etc. (more than we realize)
  • Don’t deprive yourself – this is one of my favourite Wansink recommendations, in that it is something I strive to communicate to my patients (and even friends).  Food is meant to be eaten and enjoyed.  But often, we think that you need to take all the good things away to be healthy. Not so!

I come back to my mantra of moderation.  It’s not a sexy word, I know, but it really does make sense.  Have some of your most favourite food in the world (notice I emphasize “some”), but the key is to be smart about how much and how often.  t boils down to that, plain and simple.  You don’t need to be deprived to get healthy or lose weight but with the right information and being mindful of your choices, you’ll survive the next visit to the movies.