Habit Makes Bad Food Go Down Too Easily

by Sandy Todd Webster on Oct 17, 2011

Food for Thought

Do you snack in the car while waiting to pick up the kids from sports? Do you routinely munch on crackers or chips while cooking dinner? Do you ever find yourself eating mindlessly simply because it fits a ritual you have?

University of Southern California (USC) researchers recently showed why poor eating habits persist even when the food we’re eating doesn’t taste good.

Researchers gave people about to enter a movie theater a bucket of either just-popped, fresh popcorn or stale, week-old popcorn. Those who did not usually eat popcorn at the movies ate much less stale popcorn than fresh popcorn. The week-old popcorn just didn’t taste as good. But those who indicated they typically munched popcorn at the movies ate about the same amount of popcorn whether it was fresh or stale. Apparently, for those in the habit of eating popcorn at the movies, it made no difference whether the popcorn tasted good or not.

“When we’ve repeatedly eaten a particular food in a particular environment, our brain comes to associate the food with that environment and makes us keep eating as long as those environmental cues are present,” said lead author David Neal, PhD, who was a psychology professor at USC when the research was conducted and now heads a social and consumer research firm.

The study, which appeared in the June 2011 issue of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, can help researchers understand overeating and the conditions that may cause people to eat even when they are not hungry or do not like the food.

“People believe their eating behavior is largely activated by how food tastes. Nobody likes cold, spongy, week-old popcorn,” said study co-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.”

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About the Author

Sandy Todd Webster

Sandy Todd Webster IDEA Author/Presenter

Sandy Todd Webster is Editor in Chief of IDEA's publications, including the award-winning IDEA FITNESS JOURNAL and IDEA FOOD & NUTRITION TIPS, the industry's leading resources for fitness, wellness and nutrition professionals worldwide. Sandy joined IDEA in 2001 as executive editor of IDEA PERSONAL TRAINER and IDEA FITNESS MANAGER magazines and was promoted to lead the editorial team in 2003. More than 20 years in magazine publishing, marketing communications and creative services have shaped her straightforward approach to multi-channel communication. Early experience in Los Angeles as a sports writer/reporter, and then enriching years as a managing editor in allied health care publishing have pulled her across a spectrum of stimulating subject matter. Fitness, health and nutrition reside at the perfect center of this content continuum, she feels. A Chicago native, Sandy grew up fully engaged in various competitive sports. Her drive and dedication as an athlete translate to a disciplined work ethic and unwavering approach to challenge in her career. Shortly after graduating journalism school from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, she was recruited to L.A. for her first post in magazine publishing. After two decades of working on magazines--and now in the throes of applying the unbelieveable multi-media content delivery options available in the magazine 2.0 world--she is still "completely in love" with the creative process it takes to deliver meaningful, inspirational content to end users. She is an accomplished home cook and gardner who would love to combine those skills and passions with her health and fitness background to continue educating readers about a well-balanced, healthy lifestyle.