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Antecedents and Mediators of Eating Bouts

Wansink, Brian (1994). Antecedents and Mediators of Eating Bouts.  Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 23(2), 166–82. 

What Made You Eat the Whole Bag of Cookies: Internal and External Influences on Eating Bouts? 

Have you ever found yourself eating ice cream and before you know it the entire container is gone? What motivates people to eat more than normal? Dramatic increases in the volume consumed of a certain food are referred to as eating bouts.

An academic article published in the Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal explores what stimulates and influences how much is consumed during these eating bouts.

In a survey of 178 adults, researchers in the Food and Brand Lab found eating bouts are stimulated by external cues (such as visibility) and by internal cues (such as unhappiness or boredom). Eating bouts that are internally cued are perceived as less reasonable, less healthy, less enjoyable and often involve large volumes of food, leaving people feeling guilty, lonely and depressed. When you're depressed and drown your sorrows in the pint of ice cream, remember eating the whole carton of ice cream will not eliminate the depressed feelings. *

Furthermore, internally cued eating bouts influence attitudes and how much one eats differently than externally cued eating bouts. If the eating bout is internally cued, the volume of food tends to be unrelated to the nutrition value, price, substitutability, or perishability of the food. In contrast, if the eating bout is externally cued, a person is more likely to take these factors into account.

It is clear that when one feels depressed after an eating bout and claims not to have enjoyed the food an educational program may help them either manage their expectations or modify their behavior. Researchers at the Food and Brand Lab suggest three keys to help people manage their eating bouts:

  • Be aware of those specific factors that can stimulate eating bouts. For example, to minimize externally stimulated eating bouts, consumers should make food less available and out of sight.
  • To minimize eating bouts stimulated by moods and cravings, consumers should be informed about the consequences of the eating bouts.
  • Realize that once eating bouts begin, they are not guided by reason, and they often continue until the product is gone.

"If it's not around, you won't eat it," said Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab. " Nevertheless, nothing deters an ice cream eating bout better than not having ice cream available. "

*The study was conducted at the University of Illinois, former location of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.

Download a free pre-print version of this paper here.