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Why we overeat even when the food doesn't taste good

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To eat or not to eat? That is the question.

Well, actually, according to a new study, for some people it's not a question at all.

Researchers at the University of Southern California say that once eating a particular food becomes a habit, people are powerless over it and will keep doing it even if they think it tastes disgusting.

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To test this, they looked at the paradigm of eating habits: munching on popcorn during a movie.

Movie-goers were given popcorn. Some got stale, week-old popcorn, and others got a freshly popped tub. After the movie, the bowls were measured and the study found that people who didn't usually eat popcorn ate less of the stale stuff than those who regularly ate popcorn.

"People believe their eating behaviour is largely activated by how food tastes. Nobody likes cold, spongy, week-old popcorn," said corresponding author Wendy Wood, provost professor of psychology and business at USC. "But once we've formed an eating habit, we no longer care whether the food tastes good. We'll eat exactly the same amount, whether it's fresh or stale."

These results, which were published in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, give insight into overeating, suggesting that sometimes people can't actually control the amount of food they shove down their throats once they make the decision to engage in the habit.

But the study also found what may be a solution to the problem: Change up the habit.

A portion of the study involved surveying which movie-goers ate the popcorn with their dominant hand vs. their non-dominant hand. Researchers discovered that people who used their non-dominant hand ate less.

Using the hand that doesn't normally grab fistfuls of popcorn, they reason, meant the movie-goers were paying more attention to the eating process, allowing them to actually notice the staleness of the popcorn.

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So next time you're holding a Big Mac in front of your face, being like: "I don't want to eat you but I'm addicted!" Stop, switch hands and you may find you'll eat less.

What are your bad eating habits? Have you ever found that you'll eat food even though you don't like the taste?

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About the Author

Madeleine White is the Assistant National Editor for The Globe and Mail. She has been with the Globe since 2011 and previously worked in the Globe's Video and Features departments, covering topics ranging from fitness and health to real estate to indigenous education. More

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