What Do People Habitually Overeat More Than Chocolate?

You might be surprised which foods people habitually overeat most! (Survey)

Posted Jul 21, 2019

Fotolia
Source: Fotolia

Did you ever wonder which food treats are most appealing, and what psychological traits are associated with people habitually overeat them?  For me, this curiosity began 20 years ago when I conducted my own informal survey with thousands of visitors on my website. 

A few intriguing trends emerged:

  • People who struggled with chocolate tended to be more lonely, brokenhearted, or depressed.  
  • People who struggled with crunchy, salty snacks tended to be more stressed at work.
  • And people who struggled with soft, starchy things, like bread and bagels, tended to be more stressed at home.

That was all very intriguing, but the survey had several serious methodological flaws, and the data-set was no longer available to review. So, more recently, I commissioned a professional survey with 500 people. 

We recruited a stratified, random sample of the population, and I had the data weighted to be demographically representative of the United States as a whole. We asked what foods people had trouble stopping once they started, how satisfied they were with their life overall, and how close they were to their ideal weight.  

The results really surprised me. From the way people talk about chocolate, you'd think it would've come up as the most difficult to resist food treat of all. After all, "Just hand over the chocolate, and nobody gets hurt!" has to have come from somewhere, right? But chocolate was far from the top of the list:  

  • Salty snacks (chips, pretzels, popcorn, etc.) turned up twice as frequently as chocolate. A whole 32.9 percent of respondents indicated they felt out of control with these kinds of snacks as compared to only 18.6 percent who struggled with chocolate. 

Life satisfaction also played a strong role in the salty snack category. You might expect people who are more satisfied with their lives to be less likely to struggle, but the opposite proved true. Those at least somewhat satisfied were at least 50 percent more likely to say they couldn't stop eating salty snacks. Demographically, those aged 65+ had more trouble with salty snacks than the rest of the population (43.6 percent vs. 32.9 percent)  

  • Non-chocolate sugary treats (sweets, candy, cake, cookies, etc.) were also reported to be more appealing than chocolate at 24.3 percent. And intriguingly, those who said they were very satisfied with life were 33 percent less likely to struggle with sweets than everyone else. 

Does life satisfaction move us away from sweets and towards salty, crunchy snacks? Or is there something about indulging in the salty-crunchy stuff that makes us feel more satisfied? We can only hypothesize. 

Large food manufacturers certainly spend a fortune attempting to maximize satisfaction from salty snacks, so perhaps this is part of the effect we're seeing. There was also a trend towards women having just slightly more difficulty with sweets than men (28.5 percent vs. 24.3 percent).

  • Flour (bread, pasta, etc.) came in at 14.2 percent. There was no significant impact from life satisfaction, weight, gender, or age on difficulty controlling oneself with flour.   
  • In the last place were fatty snacks (nuts, cheese, and fried food) at only 10.2 percent. It's noteworthy that people who were 40 or more pounds overweight were more than twice as likely to have trouble with fatty snacks vs. those closer to their ideal weight (14.1 percent vs. 6.2 percent). Notwithstanding this difference, fatty snacks were still not a primary concern for most people.

How can we leverage this data? Take note of the pattern, and become both more aware of and more careful with the more appealing treats. Of course, the most difficult food in the world for you personally is whichever one you can't stop eating! Still, the pattern is clear, and in my experience, more awareness, sensitivity, and planning can lead to substantially more control.  

When people tell me they can't control themselves with certain foods, I ask them what role they'd like that food to play in their lives. Sometimes they say something very specific like: "I wish I could eat it just once per week in a very specific amount." Other times, they say, "I think I need to quit it entirely. It's the kind of thing I can't give an inch without giving a mile!"

If you think it's wiser to have very specific amounts, then the next step is to articulate the conditions and amounts very cogently and clearly. For example: "I will allow myself one 8 oz. bag of _____ (insert favorite salty snack here) on Saturday or Sunday, but not both." Or "I will allow myself one dessert when I'm out at a restaurant, but no more than twice per calendar week." 

On the other hand, if you think you need to quit, then quit! For some people, none is a lot easier than some.

For more a practical, step-by-step method to organize your mind to either quit or control any of the foods in the categories above, please see "How to Stop Binge Eating in Three Unusual Steps."