You Are Where You Eat

How Environment Shapes Our Eating Habits

A girl eating popcorn at a movie theater.Every morning, without fail, I amble bleary-eyed to the kitchen and make a fresh cup of coffee. Even on the days when I don’t really feel like drinking the stuff. Whether I enjoy the cup or not, it has become a deeply-ingrained morning ritual. I seem to take solace in the whole routine: waiting for the water to boil, scooping a couple of hefty doses of coffee beans out of the bag, the churning of the grinder.

Researchers at USC came up with a clever way of determining just how rooted our habits can be. Participants were recruited to attend the movies, where the study involved two choices of popcorn: fresh or week-old. The researchers wanted to gauge if popcorn-lovers would still eat popcorn if it was less than fresh.

Beforehand, participants were questioned on exactly how much they liked popcorn (two options: love it, or take-it-or-leave-it). Results showed that the popcorn buffs ate their popcorn—even if their sample was stale. (As for those take-it-or-leave-it volunteers, they barely touched the stuff). Part two of the experiment moved participants to a meeting room. Removed from the movie theater setting, even the popcorn devotees didn’t seem as enchanted by the traditional theater snack. Fresh or stale, no one craved popcorn this time around.

And further building on these studies, a third study required participants to eat popcorn with their non-dominant hand (for me, that would be my left). Eating with the hand that typically does little of the work conquered the habit, since participants had to focus more on what they were doing.

The USC study, published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, showed that the popcorn eating wasn’t taking place because of the taste. Eating was much more about the environment.  

The study offers insight into figuring out methods of breaking bad habits. Whether it’s plopping down on the sofa after work and initiating a ritual of mindless munching or sitting at the movies and eating stale popcorn, our eating behaviors may be deeply ingrained and hard to break. But there are ways to take small steps to change your environment, which may shake up the old patterns.

A common refrain among exercise-avoiders is that they don’t have the time. But there are ways to incorporate good habits into your daily routine no matter how busy you are.  I used to sing that tune, too, until I changed my environment. I moved to a city where I wouldn’t have to depend on a car and had no choice but to walk on a daily basis. Not everyone should be expected to uproot their life to squeeze in exercise—but if there are windows of opportunity throughout the day to take a walk, why not seize them?

And if you can’t change your environment, try taking these tips into consideration:

  • Plan ahead: pack healthy foods.
  • Don’t skip meals. This will almost certainly invite overeating later.
  • Make a snack schedule, and be prepared with healthy snacks.
  • Enjoy your food: take pleasure in what’s on your plate.

As for me, I probably won’t be tossing the French Press any time soon. But, before I start grinding the coffee beans, I might want to ask if there are other ways to seek solace from my morning routine. 

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