Why It Can Be Hard to Avoid Mindless Eating

If you’re at a party this weekend and don’t want to mindlessly munch for hours, get out of arm’s reach of the goodies before your mind encourages you otherwise, suggests new research on what triggers eating in the absence of hunger.

Previous research had established that people eat more when food is within reach. (Consider how, back when airlines gave snacks, you suddenly had a craving for peanuts once they were put in front of you.) For the new research, Dutch researchers looked at what mental processes might be going on to cause that sometimes undesirable behaviour.

People looked at images of food on a computer screen. Some of the images appeared close, simulating food that’s within reach, while other images were more distant, simulating food you’d have to cross a room to get to.

While looking at the images, the study participants were presented with two types of words, function words (e.g., “to taste”) and observation words (e.g., “to see”). This part of the experiment stems from research showing that just seeing an image of an object can trigger the process of engaging with the object; for example, seeing an image of a tea cup can start the neurological response needed to grab the tea cup.

A key finding was that people reacted more quickly to the function words when looking at images of nearby food than distant food. But their reaction time to the observation words was the same. The images that looked like within-reach food caused quicker “must eat cookie” thoughts, while the apparent proximity of the food didn’t affect the speed with which people had non-actionable thoughts about the food.

The researchers found they got the same results regardless of how hungry the study participants said they were. Also, the participants reacted more quickly to images of unwrapped than wrapped food, again highlighting the appeal of readily available food, and how removing yourself from potential overeating traps is probably a better approach than relying on willpower.

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