Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

Count those M&Ms – it works

  • Article by: Maura Lerner
  • Star Tribune
  • August 23, 2012 - 7:12 PM

Joseph Redden says it's a total coincidence that his study came out this week, just in time for the Minnesota State Fair.

But Redden, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, is trying to shed some light on how people can cut down on junk food.

And he's had some success -- in this case, getting college students to curb their appetite for chocolate.

Redden, a marketing expert at the Carlson School of Management, had a theory: It's not just willpower that helps us resist temptation, it's boredom. If we pay enough attention to the food we're eating, it starts to lose its appeal.

So he and colleague Kelly Haws, of Texas A&M University, set up a series of experiments.

They asked hundreds of college students to eat a range of snacks -- some healthful (nuts, raisins, granola bars) and some not (M&Ms, Hershey's chocolate, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups).

Some volunteers were asked to count the number of times they swallowed -- using a clicker that's used to count pitches in baseball. Then they rated how much they enjoyed their snacks.

The scientists found that counting caused people to "satiate" faster -- the more they ate, the less they liked it.

It turned out, Redden said, that people with high levels of self-control paid more attention to snacks they perceived as unhealthy, helping them resist temptation. For people with less self-control, the clicker had the equivalent effect. "It was kind of a neat dietary intervention that seemed to work," he said.

When it comes to overeating, many people assume it's all about willpower, Redden said, and "that some people have it and others don't." These studies, in the latest Journal of Consumer Research, suggest that simply paying more attention -- what some call "mindful eating" -- increases willpower.

On the flip side, he said, if you're eating broccoli, you may be better off NOT paying attention.

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