When you’re in the coffee shop and you watch your hand pick up the muffin and place it on your tray, how much of this was down to the situation, and how much to do with your (lack of) willpower or your long-term intentions? A new study in the British Journal of Health Psychology compared these influences and found that momentary cues, such as seeing someone else snacking, were more strongly associated with how much people snacked than their own baseline psychological traits and intentions.
Setting the scene for their research, Katherine Elliston at the University of Tasmania and her colleagues said that in Australia, around 30 to 41 per cent of people’s daily energy intake comes from snacking rather than from proper meals. This makes the psychology of snacking an important part of helping people to avoid over-eating.
The researchers recruited 61 participants (42 women) through social media and flyers and asked them to complete a range of baseline psychological measures, including how much they think about the costs and benefits of healthy eating as occurring sooner rather than later (this comes from “Temporal Self-regulation Theory” – people are less likely to eat healthily when they see the benefits as distant and the costs as imminent); they also rated their intentions to eat more healthily; reported how often they’d eaten five fruit and veg per day recently; and rated their powers of self-regulation and willpower.
Then, for the next two weeks, the participants used an app to record any times that they ate food, and whether it was a snack (high or low energy) or a main meal. Sometimes they were also prompted at this point to record any situational cues relevant to snacking, such as: whether snacks were currently available; whether they were in a bad mood; whether they could see anyone else snacking; whether they were near a fast food shop. The app also beeped at random times through the day and asked the participants to record the presence of any of these same situational cues.
Overall, the participants recorded eating a total of 1127 snacks across the two-week study period. They reported the presence of other people snacking more often when they had just logged their own snacking than during times they weren’t snacking (i.e. when they were prompted randomly by the app), indicating a possible causal role for this situational cue, though the current design can’t prove this. The same pattern was also true for being in a bad mood and having snacks available and easily accessible – these were present more often during snacking than during random prompts when not eating, suggesting these cues may have contributed to snacking. Proximity to food outlets didn’t appear to be a relevant factor.
Intentions and past healthy eating behaviour were not associated with the odds of snacking. Seeing the costs of healthy eating as coming early, before eating, was associated with more snacking. Lower self regulation was also associated with more high energy snacking overall, but these baseline measures were less strongly associated with snacking than momentary cues.
The researchers said their study represented a successful application of Temporal Self-regulation Theory to explain snacking. “The results demonstrate that snacking is largely guided by momentary cues and that motivational-level factors may be less important in guiding snacking than previously thought,” they said, adding that helping people combat stress and low mood, and reducing the availability of snacks, could help people eat fewer unhealthy snacks.
The new findings add to previous research that has shown that goal attainment and healthy behaviour is more about avoiding temptation in the first place than exercising iron willpower. Avoid going to the cafe that sells those amazing muffins, especially when you’re in a bad mood, and you’ll probably find you snack on them less. This sounds simple enough, but unfortunately, we have a tendency to overestimate our willpower – especially when we’re not hungry, we forget how tempting snacks can be when we are!
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