A few weeks ago, my husband made his bi-weekly trip to Costco. While the trip itself was uneventful (and certainly not worth blogging about), my experience with one particular item in my husband’s trove led me to delve into the world of food psychology and question why I seemingly had no willpower.

What food am I talking about, you ask? None other than the sweet, yet subtly salty Boom Chicka Pop Sweet & Salty Kettle Corn.

The first thing that surprised me about this bag was that it was the size of a small child and weighed 1 ½ pounds (issue number 1). I chastised my husband for what I considered an impulse purchase, but he reassured me that it was a good deal and we deserved a treat since we’ve been working out hard in the gym (issue number 2). After we each had a handful from the bag, we agreed to portion the rest and make it last. Famous last words.

Before I move on to the remainder of my riveting post, I want to make it clear that I don’t believe that there is such a thing as “good” and “bad” foods. Indulgences can (and should!) be part of a healthy, balanced diet. Also, my intention is to not pick on one particular food; my Boom Chicka Pop could be your salt and vinegar chips or Luna & Larry’s ice cream. Now, back to the story…

The first few days after buying the popcorn, I completely forgot about it since it was being housed in a difficult to reach cupboard, completely out of sight (benefit number 1). But once I found it upon returning home from a particularly challenging workout, it was game over.

While munching down on the popcorn, I noticed a few key things:

  • I ate in a much more hurried way than I normally do (to the point that I found it quicker to devour my popcorn using a spoon vs. my hands)
  •  I wanted to eat more BEFORE my current bowl was even empty
  • No matter how much I ate, I didn’t feel full
  • The popcorn made my brain go *ZING* and every bite was just as delicious as the last
  • I had a difficult time putting the bag away once my predetermined portion was consumed

Now, keep in mind that I’m a dietitian who specializes in helping others cultivate a healthy relationship with food, free from emotional eating. But I’m also human and was no match for the team of food scientists behind this brilliant food product.

Here’s the thing.

Fat, sugar, and salt do wonderful things to our taste buds. They are also connected to the pleasure centre in our brain, responsible for that *ZING* when you eat something with the perfect ratio of fat to sugar to salt.

And the food industry knows this.

The role of food scientists in this industry is to manipulate the structure of fat, sugar, and salt (and other ingredients) to achieve the bliss point, which is “the sensory profile where you like food the most”.

And I took the bait. Hook, line, and sinker. While I was eating the popcorn, my pleasure centre released endorphins that formed the subconscious thought: “Hey! This is frickn good! Keep eating it! Remember it! Get more of it! Wheeeeeee!!!” No wonder it felt like I had no willpower to stop eating this food! And as I eluded to earlier, there wasn’t really a prompt for me to stop . When I munch on an apple, I stop when it’s just core. But with a bag of popcorn that is designed to hit my bliss point with each bite, there is no end, other than an empty bag.

So, does this mean you should swear off any manufactured products and only stick to munching apples and broccoli? Absolutely not! (Although I have nothing against munching apples and broccoli.) However, there are a few guidelines I would consider when purchasing and consuming such foods to ensure you are enjoying them, without compromising your health goals:

Aim to make 80% of your purchases WHOLE FOODS.

One of the challenges in today’s food world is that our grocery store shelves are dominated by foods that have been created in a lab. Even seemingly innocuous foods, such as rice, may contain added fat, sugar, and salt if it’s featured as a “ready-to-eat” meal. When shopping, aim to fill your cart with 80% whole foods, which are foods that are grown and harvested (vs. being made in a lab) and have a single or very short ingredient list.

Avoid buying Costco-sized manufactured snacks.

The larger the package, the more we are going to eat. Period. Start challenging your concept of a “deal” and opt for single serve indulgences, rather than family-sized.

Avoid eating manufactured snacks when you are hungry.

If you are physically hungry, eating a bag of popcorn ain’t going to cut it. Nutrient-dense foods that contain fibre, protein, and water do a really good job of taking up space in our stomachs and creating a sensation of fullness. If your indulgence lacks protein or fibre, eat it with something that includes these nutrients or at a time when you are not experiencing strong feelings of hunger.

Avoid eating manufactured snacks when distracted.

Eating should involve all five senses. When we pay attention to what and how we are eating, we are less likely to overeat and more likely to derive greater satisfaction from our food.

Keep manufactured snacks in difficult to reach places.

Out of sight, out of mind really does work with our food choices. But the amount of effort required also influences what we decide to eat (ever notice that manufactured snacks NEVER require any prep work?). Make it a challenge to get to manufactured snacks by storing them in more challenging places like a garage, basement, or cupboard that requires a step-stool.

I also want to emphasize the importance of limiting how many snacks you bring into the house. Variety and habit have a powerful influence on our food choices. In my situation, I would have never craved or thought about Boom Chicka Pop had it not been in our house. I also haven’t craved it since. Ice cream, on the other hand, is something I love to include as part of the 20% of my diet. But rather than keep it in the house, where I have tell myself “no” each time I open the freezer, I make a point of regularly planning a trip to Strawberry Blonde or Thimble Cakes for a scoop of my favourite dairy-free ice cream. Guilt-free.

Pre-portion the ENTIRE bag.

If you skipped the paragraph above and decided to bring home a large bag of a manufactured snack, make a point of pre-portioning the entire bag before you eat it.

Plan WHEN you will eat your indulgence.

I’ve said it before and will say it again. Indulgences can and should be part of your healthy diet. But the challenge can be figuring out how to include them in a healthful way. In my practice, I encourage clients to explore this concept by asking the following questions:

  • How many indulgences in your day/week/month do you need to feel truly satisfied?
  • Are you eating indulgences out of pleasure or for another reason (habit, emotion, because they are there, etc.)?

Using myself as an example, I have come to realize that I enjoy a minimum of 2 squares of chocolate per day. I also like to have either ice cream, a nanaimo bar, or some other delicious vegan goody at least every two weeks. Throw in 1-2 ciders per week, and I’m 100% satisfied.

I don’t tie these eating experiences to any particular emotion, time, or situation, for the most part. Every now and then, I’ll crave an extra square of chocolate or a glass of wine after a long day, but I make a point of acknowledging this to myself, and saying (sometimes out loud) that these foods do not address any difficult emotions I may be experiencing.

So there you have it, the first blog post written about a bag of popcorn. But in all seriousness, I would love to hear about any similar struggles you might have. Feel free to send me a message or leave a comment below!