Mary E. Pritchard Ph.D.

Diet is a 4-Letter Word

Mmmmm…. Stale Popcorn

Why we eat when we're not hungry and other food-related issues

Posted Feb 14, 2013

Who on earth would want to eat 5-day-old stale popcorn? As it turns out, probably you – as long as it was free. In cahoots with a local movie theater, psychologist Brian Wansink gave movie goers either a medium or large bucket of free popcorn for a post-lunch matinee. He wanted to know whether the size of the bucket would influence how much people ate. It did. It didn’t matter that most of the participants had just eaten lunch; the people who received the large buckets of 5-day-old popcorn ate 53% more than did those given medium-sized buckets.

Surprised? You shouldn’t be. Let’s be honest here. A lot of times we eat something just because it’s there – even if it’s 5-day-old popcorn. Why does this happen? A number of reasons have been proposed and we’ll likely cover them all at some point in this blog, but most researchers agree that whatever the true reason may be it probably started at a relatively young age.

Remember when you were two years old? Me neither, but childhood photos show me eating an ice cream cone in a plastic kiddie pool. And I was fine. Life was glorious. I never counted calories or pondered the size of my thighs or worried whether or not I was eating too many carbs. But, like most people, as I grew up I learned that I should worry about these things.

More importantly, I learned that hunger was not always a valid reason for eating. Interestingly, I also learned that I could eat when I wasn’t hungry as long as it was for a good cause (e.g., office birthday party – who can say no to the cupcakes?!). This is what is known as the internal-external hypothesis. The basic premise is that as we age, we learn to ignore internal cues (i.e., hunger), and pay attention to external cues (i.e., taste, smell, occasion). This leads to all sorts of food-related issues – more to come on that in future blogs.

We also learn that food can cure any problem. For me, it was chocolate. Have a bad day? Have a chocolate chip square. Get picked on at school? French Silk Pie will save the day. So as an adult what do I turn to when I’m having a bad day? You guessed it. Chocolate.

Not that it helps, mind you. Unfortunately, there are only so many things that chocolate can do for us. Yes, it temporarily improves my mood, but at the end of the day, the problem that caused me to crave the chocolate in the first place is still there. So there I am, chocolate bar in hand still upset over my worries. And I usually have a sugar headache to top it all off.

So why do we eat stale popcorn? Because it’s there. Because it’s what you do at the movies. Because somewhere in childhood we learned that it’s okay to stuff your face with food you don’t want as long as it’s the right occasion. How do we stop? It’s time to get in touch with your inner two year old. The next time you find yourself reaching for the stale popcorn or the evil office candy jar, ask yourself, “Am I really and truly hungry?” If not, walk away from the stale popcorn. If you are hungry, ask yourself, “Is this really what I want to eat?” If yes, dive on in (but seriously, it’s stale popcorn!). If not, then try to figure out not just what you want, but what you need. Some protein? Some carbs? A good cry? A hug? It may not be quite as easy as diving headfirst into stale popcorn, but you’ll be one step closer to getting in touch with that inner two-year-old and giving your body what it really needs instead of what you think it wants.

For more on the crazy reasons we eat certain foods, check out my website at Sign up for my mailing list and get my free ebook on conquering your cravings. Until next time, happy eating!

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