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Red Light: Can Visual Cues Curb Our Eating?

It turns out that once you "pop," you actually can "stop." A study found that providing visual cues in a tube of potato chips helped people eat less. More details inside.
Red Light: Can Visual Cues Curb Our Eating?

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Are we hopelessly bound to consume that entire tube of Pringles, or can we actually “stop” at a reasonable amount once (though preferably before) we “pop”? A new study says yes, we can — as long as we set ourselves up with subtle cues to curb our enthusiasm [1].

Subtle Signals — The Need-to-Know

To measure eaters’ self control, researchers — led by Yale University’s Andrew Geier — took a normal tube of Lay's Stax and dyed certain ones red at different intervals (the fifth and tenth, or the seventh and fourteenth chip). Eaters were told one of two things: that the red chips were a new, tasty tomato-basil flavored kind, or that the red chips were accidents but completely safe for consumption (and equally yummy). No matter what tasters were told, the red chips achieved the same calorie-curbing effect.

Study participants who ate from piles containing red chips consumed a 48.5 percent less than those who noshed from piles with no red chips at all — a difference of at least 250 calories. (No reds in the stack led to a 45 chip average indulgence. Stacks with red markers curtailed intake to an average of 20 chips.)

Geier and colleagues attribute the decreased intake to the subliminal stop signals that the red chips communicated to muncher’s brains. Since none of the subjects stopped eating immediately after consuming a red chip, the researchers say there’s no reason to believe that eating less resulted from any gross-out factor.

The Takeaway

Segmenting large quantities of food into single servings helps people eat less by reminding us, visually, how much we’re actually eating [1]. Serving sizes can be separated by, say placing a handful of nuts into a ziplock bag or onto a small plate, or dying some potato chips red. (Compare this study to mindlessly grazing from a Costco-size tub of salted macadamia nuts or a box of sugary cereal).  Unfortunately, bag chips and other bad-for-you snacks usually don’t come with built-in progress markers. Without cues that tells us “Hey, you just ate one serving,” we’re less likely to register we’ve consumed enough calories and more likely to keep on gorging. (Props if you actually are in touch with your satiation cues.) But as most research shows, what we see influences how much we eat more than what our tummies are actually telling us. [2] [3].)

Have you noticed a difference in how much you eat when you portion out food? Would you stop at a red chip or keep on noshing? Let us know in the comments below.

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Works Cited +

  1. Red potato chips: segmentation cues can substantially decrease food intake. Geier, A., Wansink, B., Rozin, P. Department of Psychology, Yale University, USA. Health Psychology, 2012 May;31(3):398-401.
  2. Bottomless bowls: why visual cues of portion size may influence intake. Wansink, B., Painter, J.E., North, J. Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. Obesity Research, 2005. Jan;13(1):93-100.
  3. Dining in the dark. The importance of visual cues for food consumption and satiety. Scheibehenne, B., Todd, P.M., Wansink, B. University of Basel, Switzerland. Appetite, 2010 Dec; 55(3):710-3.