I like popcorn…


New research suggests portion size and distraction, not enjoyment, control how much we eat.

The credits roll—and you reach into your extra-large popcorn to find nothing but a slick of grease and half-burnt unexploded kernels. How did you eat the whole thing by yourself, almost without noticing? A new study from Profs. Brian Wansink of Cornell University and Junyong Kim of the University of Florida may hold the answer.

Wansink and Kim enlisted random moviegoers at evening showings of “Stargate” to assist in their research. 158 people between eighteen and sixty-six years of age were given free popcorn in exchange for filling out a survey after the movie. The popcorns were randomly either medium or large—and half of them had been ripening for two weeks before being given to the study’s unsuspecting participants. After the movie, the subjects turned in their remaining popcorn and filled out their survey.

Everyone in the study saw the same movie, but not everyone ate the same popcorn. However, both those given fresh and those given stale popcorn ate more, on average, when the popcorn was presented in a larger container. The final results of the study found that those with large containers ate 45.3% more fresh and 33.6% more stale popcorn than those given medium-sized containers.

Those who had been given fresh popcorn liked it better than those with the two-week-old kernels, but though they described it as “Stale!” “Soggy!” and “Terrible!” they still ate it. When Wansink and Kim tallied up their data, it showed that “perceived taste and quality had little to do with how much popcorn one ate compared to the size of the container and its freshness.”

“We’re a nation of mindless eaters,” Prof. Wansink told Matt Lauer of the Today Show. In his study, he concludes that when people are presented with food, they assume that the amount they are given is the amount they are meant to eat—especially when they are in a distracting environment such as a movie theater showing the re-release of Stargate. Whether or not the food tastes good has little or nothing to do with it.

According to Wansink and Kim, though, the findings of their study do not doom humanity to a lifetime of mindless compulsion to consume whatever unhealthy and disgusting slop sloshes into their trough. If how much someone eats has little to do with how the food actually tastes, unappetizing but healthy food consumption can be increased. Rather than ordering or begging a child to eat just one piece of broccoli at the dinner table, turn on the cartoons as a distraction and hand them a big bowl of grapes or carrot sticks.

And when you’re out at the movies, get yourself a small popcorn to share.


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