Study: When We Least Expect It, We Overeat

New research suggests a path to smarter eating.

Posted Jan 29, 2015

Do you eat when you’re bored? So do I. Then again, I eat when I’m not bored, too. So the real question is: Do we eat more when we’re bored than when we’re, say, highly entertained?

The answer, according to a clever study by Aner Tal and colleagues, is, surprisingly, No. In fact, sometimes being energized by your environment may be the worst thing for your waistline.

In their study, Tal's team sat college students down in front of the TV with an array of tasty treats in front of them—M&M’s, cookies, carrots, and grapes. Tal then measured how many calories students consumed, on average, during 20 minutes of TV viewing—while the students had no idea that their consumption was being monitored.

When watching 20 minutes of the "Charlie Rose Show," a relatively sedate PBS talk show, students consumed a bit more than 100 calories of snacks, on average. But other students, picked at random to watch an excerpt from an action movie (The Island) ate twice that amount in the same period of time.

Double your fun and double your calories?

As it turns out, our eating behavior, especially the amount of food we eat at any given time, is often influenced by environmental cues outside our awareness. As Brian Wansink (a co-author on the TV study) has shown in numerous studies, our eyes play a large role in our consumption (non-)decisions. Change the size of the plate in a buffet line, for example, and calorie consumption can rise or fall almost 30%.

Being energized is another factor that unconsciously influences calorie consumption. Eat dinner alone and you’ll probably consume fewer calories than if you eat at a table overflowing with stimulating people. Part of the energy we gain from our entertainment is redirected toward our appetite. We are energized and, thus, eat more energetically.

An action movie gets us riled, and we grab four more M&Ms, likely munching mindlessly, unaware of just how many pieces of candy we’re shoving into our mouths.

The moral is simple (and it doesn’t involve losing weight through boredom): Remember that the amount of food most of us eat is not solely the result of conscious choices (“10 M&M’s, no more”), but is also influenced by subtle changes in our surroundings. Most importantly, if we situate ourselves near snack food, we are setting ourselves up to be influenced by these unconscious forces.

If you want to control how much food you eat, make a conscious effort to remove snack food from your reach.

Teaser photo credit: bitt24/Shutterstock

About the Author

Peter Ubel, M.D., is a physician, behavioral scientist, and professor of Business and Public Policy at Duke University. He is the author of Critical Decisions and Free Market Madness.

More Posts