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.”