Beware the Bucket!

In Diet and Weight, Junk Food, Mindful Eating, Mindless Eating on June 14, 2011 at 12:42 pm

I posted previously about my favorite food psychologist Dr. Brian Wansink and his book Mindless Eating.  I promised coming posts related to his book, so here is the first.

On the cover of Dr. Wansink’s book is a picture of tubs of popcorn.  One of the studies that will catch your attention early in the book is not just about popcorn but about stale movie popcorn.

He set up a situation where people going to the movies were offered free popcorn.  The trick was that the popcorn was a plant.  He had popped it over a week earlier and put it into huge bags to get stale.  Then he set up with the concession stand that the people getting the free popcorn would only get his ‘special’ corn.

As people lined up for their free popcorn, they were randomly either given a ‘medium’ which was the same as the large the theater sold or a ‘large’ which was almost double that size.  After the movie, a Bruce Willis action flick, the folks who got the free popcorn were taken aside to ask them about the popcorn and weigh what they had left in their buckets.

Everyone told him that the popcorn was stale and tasted bad, yet everyone had eaten it anyway.  Not just a handful either.  Everyone had their own bucket so there was no need to share; most people had eaten well over half their bucket-full!  He asked them simple things like if they had eaten lunch before coming to the movie, if they liked the popcorn, if they were hungry when they ate the popcorn, and how much of the popcorn they had eaten.

People were very honest telling him what they thought about the popcorn.  Likewise they were honest when he matched up their answers about being hungry and whether they ate lunch before the movie.  But here’s where it gets interesting:  Everyone thought the popcorn was bad, everyone ate a very large amount of popcorn, and everyone thought they hadn’t really done more than nibble at it and put it down.

Everyone thought they had used willpower to keep from overeating.  Even when they were shown how much they ate most wouldn’t believe it.  Some even accused him of switching buckets to trick them.  Even worse, the people with the large buckets ate almost 40% more despite thinking the same thing about the popcorn and being just as likely to have not been hungry and being just as sure they hadn’t overeaten.

These folks ate up to 2000 calories of popcorn they admitted they hated just because it was there!  These were just regular people nibbling for 2 hours while watching Bruce Willis shoot bad guys, but because eating popcorn is what their habits expected while watching a movie, they did it, even if they denied eating it afterwards.

Dr. Wansink pointed to three things that tripped up everyone: habit, size, and distraction.  My guess is that if the popcorn were offered to people going to a courtroom or the ballet, not many would have taken it and very little would have been eaten.  But in the dark at the movies?  Eating popcorn is normal, so our habits take over.

The bucket size was another trip-up for people.  This has been true in every study ever done on this topic.  Bigger bowls lead to bigger eating, every time.  The last piece that led to overeating bad popcorn was the distraction of an exciting movie.  I think that if he had put people into small, plain rooms and told them he wanted them to test the popcorn, most would have tried a handful then given up in disgust and walked out.  Here the movie was interesting, it’s too dark to really see how much popcorn you’ve eaten, and heck, it was free.  Voila!  2000 calories.

I think this shows one of the many ways these easy calories sneak in, easy calories that add up to a few pounds a year.  Easy calories that can add up to being 60 pounds overweight, sick and for a 20th year class reunion.  Mind your food!  Our habits are too strong and too unwise to let them be our eating guide.

Change Your Bowl, Change Your Life!


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