Do you often find that, while making a peanut butter sandwich, you just end up lazily spoon-feeding yourself a bunch of PB on the couch? Or maybe you’ve found yourself sitting in the Taco Bell drive-thru, wondering how you got there, with only a hazy recollection of ordering 10 Cheesy Gordita Crunches just minutes earlier?
Hey: It happens. Nothing ruins a diet plan like catching yourself mindlessly eating all the time—but it’s an all-too-familiar situation for people struggling with their weight.
Thankfully, there’s hope for beating the twisted temptations, according to a new study from the University of Sydney in Australia. Researchers there rounded up a bunch of lab rats to figure out how food cues in the environment—billboards, commercials, mall food courts, etc.—influence our eating habits. They also wanted to figure out how hard are those bad habits to break.
To start, they gathered a bunch of junk food—gummy worms, Oreos, Pringles—plus some bland rat kibble, and then started feeding the rodents a junk food-laden diet or boring rat chow. Then, the rats were starved, taught to give themselves food with the press of a lever, and once again presented with the buffets of either junk or kibble. When put in the junk food environment, the rats were more likely to go back right into habitual behavior. The rates in the chow line, however, could control their eating behavior better.
Then the researchers tried another version of the experiment. For the second part, the rats were given the same foods, but researchers played a sound cue for rats presented with bland chow. The interesting trick? Even when those rats got a shot at the tasty junk food, just playing the bland-food sound cue was enough to break the rats away from mindless eating and make better food decisions.
The takeaway: Certain cues—high-fat, high-sugar foods—can prompt rats (and presumably people) to eat without even being aware of it. Other cues—a sound, in this case—could be used to break our attention. The study authors conclude “that relatively simple interventions, such as reminders of reduced food value or interrupting the automatic processing of junk food cues, might assist individuals in restoring control in environments where control over eating behavior is compromised. Smartphone apps designed to encourage healthy food choices and prevent ‘binge’ episodes are one example.”
For those of you already on your way to breaking a fast food addiction, keep going with these 15 (ultra-healthy) foods that keep you fuller, for longer.