A pint of ice cream technically contains four servings, but it can easily turn into one, because nothing triggers your brain to say, “stop!” If you’ve ever scraped the bottom of the container and thought, “shoot, I didn’t mean to eat the whole thing” you know exactly what I mean, and there’s some science, which reveals this is not at all uncommon. 

In a new study at Cornell University, scientists divided about 100 college students into two groups and observed them munching on tubes of potato chips while they watched video clips in class. Some of the tubes contained a random red colored chip, which you guessed it, acted as a subconscious stop sign that curtailed eating. In one study the red chip was inserted after one suggested serving size (seven chips) or after two serving sizes (14 chips). In a second experiment, researchers placed the red chip after every five and 10 chips. The students served the scarlet chips ate 50 percent less than those in the control group, which were fed only the golden chips.

Previous studies show that visual cues do tend to guide our eating habits, in both good and bad ways. We tend to eat the portion we’re given, clean our plates, and fill our dishes to the brim. But we also respond to visual speed bumps, or cues that help us keep track of how much we’ve eaten. For example, you’re less likely to eat multiple frozen popsicles, because seeing the empty stick signals “done.”

Whether it’s empty candy wrappers, chicken wing bones, or left behind pizza crust, even if we’re not consciously aware of it, if given the chance, our brains tend to keep track of what we've eaten. Previous research shows that when this eating “evidence” is taken away, we consume more. The good news is, you can use this info to your advantage in simple and effective ways. For example:

  • Don’t eat straight from the container
  • Choose plates and bowls that represent the serving you want to eat. In other words, if your goal is to eat a half cup of cooked oats or ice cream, don’t place your portion in a bowl that holds four times that amount.     
  • Plant visual speed bumps in smart ways. Place a measuring cup or spoon on top of jars of nuts or nut butter, or stick one right into your cereal box. You’ll be less likely to grab handfuls you can’t keep track of, or eat right out of the package.
  • Allow evidence to accumulate. If you’re eating individually wrapped chocolate squares don’t toss the wrapper in the trash after opening each one. Letting them pile up means you won’t forget if you’re on your third or forth square.   

The goal isn’t to become obsessive, but simply become more mindful and allow your brain to naturally help you achieve a better balance!

What’s your take on this topic? Do you struggle with overeating if there’s nothing to slow you down? Please tweet @cynthiasass and @Shape_Magazine .

Cynthia Sass is a registered dietitian with master's degrees in both nutrition science and public health. Frequently seen on national TV, she's a SHAPE contributing editor and nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Rays. Her latest New York Times best seller is S.A.S.S! Yourself Slim: Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.

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