Bottomless Bowls of Soup and Stale Popcorn Can All Lead To Mindless Eating

I’ve always been fascinated by the bottomless bowl of soup study that Prof. Brian Wansink’s did where he had two test groups.  One group ate tomato soup from bowls that were rigged so that soup continued to fill the bowls every time they reached the half full point. The other group had a normal bowl of soup that amounted to about nine ounces.   The group with the normal bowls felt full and stopped eating once they reached the bottom of the bowl.  The ‘bottomless bowl’ people continued to eat until the experiment was over and consumed almost twice the amount of soup!

Dr. Wansink’s did a similar study with popcorn and movie theatre-goers.  One group was given small buckets, the other group medium size buckets of stale popcorn. The people that were given large buckets ate more than the people with small. (If it’s there, we will eat it.) No one ate the popcorn because it was good.  They ate because they associated being in a movie theatre with eating popcorn.

What does this have to do with all of us? Dr. Wansink’s experiements illustrate that a lot of the time we eat because we’re distracted.  Sometimes we eat simply because the food is there. It’s not impossible to get control of this once we realize what contributes to our mindlessness.  My top five tips for gaining control of mindless eating are:

  1.  Use smaller plates, bowls and glasses (as in wine).   – This goes back to the bottomless bowl of soup experiment.  While a big plate, bowl, or glass may not be bottomless it can hold enough to alter our perception and trigger us to overeat.  Next time you indulge in something, ice cream, for example, figure out how much you are going to eat and put it in a bowl half the size of the one you would normally use.  See if the visual perception of eating a ‘full bowl’ from a smaller serving of ice cream helps you feel satisfied.
  2. Turn off the T.V., lap top and iPad while you’re eating.  These are all distractions that allow us to put food in out mouth without really thinking about it.  This is what the stale- popcorn-at-the-movie experiment proved.  When we are doing other things while we eat we have a tendency to eat more.  If you do want to have a snack (potato chips for example) while you’re watching T.V. measure the chips out onto a small bowl or plate and put the bag back in the cabinet.  This way you’ll be less likely to eat half the bag before you realize what you’ve done.
  3. Forget the idea that a clean plate is a symbol of godliness.  As children, when we didn’t want to eat everything on our plate our mothers told us about the children starving in Africa.  In reality we know that we can eat all of the food on our plate, even if we don’t want it, and it will have no impact on the person starving a couple of thousand miles across the ocean.  It will, however, set us up to feel guilty about throwing food away that we don’t want.  I have a client that I coach that was given a double layer chocolate cake for her birthday.  She ate a piece of the cake every night, even though she knew it was sabotaging her weight loss plans.  Once we discussed that it was okay to throw the rest of the cake away that’s what she did.  Putting it in the freezer isn’t an option because we all know that cake, cookies, candy, etc are 1.) just as good frozen and 2.) can be defrosted very quickly.
  4.  Drop your membership to the Blizzard Rewards Program.  This is a program that I was on for a few months.  I was in a high pressure sales position and when I met my sales goals for the week I would treat myself to a Dairy Queen Blizzard or Hardees Hand Dipped Milk Shake.  It didn’t take long for me to see where this rewards program was headed.  Once I figured out I was consuming (at least) an extra 700 calories a week and my reward was a bigger you-know-what I decided I would still treat myself for doing a good job but not with food.  Pick out something you like that is either a non-food treat or is at least a calorie-free one and make that your reward.
  5. Just say no to the unexpected foods that pop into your life.  Have you ever set a goal to take your lunch to work every day so you can have more control over your calories and nutrition? Everything goes as planned Monday and Tuesday but on Wednesday someone sets a box of bagels and cream cheese, left over from the morning meeting, right by your cube or office.  The brain starts to work right away to find a way to justify having a half a bagel with the light cream cheese. A better policy is to not eat anything that you didn’t bring in yourself.  It’s really the only way to maintain control of your calories and nutritional goals.

Need more help to stay in charge of your eating?  Don’t forget the importance tracking can play in reaching your goals.

Note – Prof. Brian Wansink holds a doctorate in marketing from Stanford University and directs the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. His work is outlined in the book “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam) .