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Edible Stop Signs: Visual Cues Decrease Snack Intake

It’s true that “you can’t eat just one,” but you might eat a lot fewer of those potato chips if they include cues for you to stop. What kind of cue? A red potato chip, a sort of “stop sign,” can serve as a subconscious indicator you’ve had enough.

Researchers from Yale, Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania put that idea to the test and found that segmentation cues - visual markers in snack foods - can substantially reduce snack intake.

In the study published in Health Psychology, two groups of college students aged 17-21 were given potato chips to snack on while they were watching video clips during a guest lecture series.

In the first study group, students were served Lays Stackables potato chips, some of which had red-dyed chips interspersed either for one serving or two servings, every 7th chip or every 14th chip respectively, and they were given one hour to consume the chips.

In the second study group, students were served Lays Stax, and red chips were interspersed every 5th or every 10th chip in some tubes. They were given 40 minutes to eat the chips, 20 minutes fewer than the first group.

Both groups were told that the red chips were otherwise identical to the other chips, but they were not told about what the color difference indicated.

Students who received the chip tubes with the red chips ate significantly fewer chips than those who received only regular chips – about half as many.

Participants in group one who received regular chips with no red chips ate, on average, 45 chips. By comparison, those who had tubes where every 7th chip was red ate about 20 chips, and those with every 14th chip red ate an average of about 23 chips.

In the second group, students who received regular chips ate about 35 chips, and those who received tubes with the 5th and 10th red chip ate an average of 14 and 16 chips, respectively.

Researchers identified three reasons why people overeat when given obviously large portions:

- Ineffective monitoring of how much we have eaten

- Eating what seems like a “normal” amount, based on the serving size

- Eating has become a semiautomated habitual activity, which continues until interrupted

They hypothesize that the red chip method tested is effective in reducing consumption because they combat these three issues. The red chips may allow eaters to better monitor how many chips they are eating, as demonstrated by the number of accurate estimates by eaters in the first study group. They may also provide a visual cue for a normal serving size by interrupting the semiautomated eating we tend to do when engaging in an activity like watching a film.

“People generally eat what is put in front of them if it is palatable,” said study author Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. “By inserting visual markers in a food package, we may be helping them to monitor how much they are eating and interrupt their semiautomated eating habits.”

The Bottom Line

The study reiterates what we’ve been told time and time again – serving size matters!

This is a novel way of helping snackers monitor how much they’re eating and interrupt their semiautomated eating habits. When we see a “stop sign,” we stop to look at it, and this interrupts mindless eating. It also shows how changing our environment can lead to weight loss.

Since we can’t expect colored food cues anytime soon from manufacturers, here are some other ideas on how to control your eating:

Use smaller plates or bowls – portion control is often driven by eating what’s on our plates; by serving portions in smaller plates or bowls, you’ll automatically eat less.

Buy pre-portioned foods – if you like a treat, opt for purchasing in small, premeasured sizes like Ghirardelli Chocolate Squares or Haagen-Dazs Single Serve Cups. For healthy yet caloric snacks like nuts and dried fruit, opt for Raisins Sun-Maid Mini Snacks.

Be more mindful – pay attention to what you’re eating while watching television; be aware that eating while viewing leads to mindless eating for an extended duration.

You may be surprised at how much weight loss can be achieved by reducing our caloric intake in small segments by monitoring serving size. In this study, the visual cues reduced caloric intake by about 250 calories. The cumulative effect of fewer chips and fewer sugary drinks can have positive results with just a little bit of awareness and effort.

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