Diabolical Diet Tool Fills You With Guilt Instead of FoodS

We are told that we must monitor exactly how much we eat because we don't want to mess up our meticulously charted calorie intake by indulging in even one too many crackers because then our thighs will explode and our life will be over—or something like that. Anyway, ever on the hunt for ways to make us feel like shit about nourishment, science has come up with a new way to trick ourselves into feeling even worse: Edible stop signs. Oh, fun! Maybe now we can get pulled over for eating violations too.

This devious concept is the brainchild of a team of researchers from Cornell University who think that adding "visual markers" to food might help people get a better sense of how many servings they're eating and, more specifically, tell them to stop. That could be as simple as adding something to the packaging, but for their study they did one better and put the stop signs inside tubes of Lay's stackable chips—which are essentially the same thing as the ultimate snack food, Pringles. The researchers inserted red chips into the stack of regular chips to divide it into servings. Some of the tubes were divided into single servings of just seven chips. Others were divided into double servings of 14 chips. They also used regular tubes of chips with no red ones dividing them up. These three different kinds of chip tubes (wow, that sounds gross) were given to 98 college kids to snack on while they watched videos, aka mindlessly snacked.

The students weren't told why the chips were red, but you might not be surprised to learn that the red chips had an effect anyway. Those kids who were given the tubes with red chips ate 50 percent less than the kids given the control tubes with no red chips. The control group ate an average of 45 chips but guessed they'd eaten about 13 chips. Those in the single- and double-serving groups had a better understanding of just how many chips they'd eaten and ended up consuming about half the amount. The results were similar when the experiment was repeated with tubes broken into 5- and 10-chip servings. Well, tra-la-la.

Do you suppose the students stopped eating the chips when they came upon the second or third red chip because they finally realized "Hey, there are discolored chips in this tube. Maybe something's wrong with them?" Okay, fine, probably they did stop because they were paying more attention to how much they were eating. As Brian Wansink, the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab explains,

People generally eat what is put in front of them if it is palatable. An increasing amount of research suggests that some people use visual indication — such as a clean plate or bottom of a bowl — to tell them when to stop eating. By inserting visual markers in a snack food package, we may be helping them to monitor how much they are eating and interrupt their semiautomated eating habits.

But do we need help? Should we have help? If the goal is to keep us all from turning into giant potato chips, then a simple portion marker on the package probably isn't going to make a difference. For one thing, serving sizes are usually ridiculously small compared to what we'd actually eat in a sitting. I mean, seven chips? C'mon. So we'll still eat far more than we are "allowed." For another thing, if we are really concerned, for whatever reason, with how much we're eating of any given snack product, can't we just pay attention using our brains?

If, on the other hand, we're not worried about how much we're consuming, then why ruin our enjoyment by throwing in a bunch of stop signs? Mindless snacking can be fun! There is something profoundly satisfying about it—except when you eat the whole bag of gummy bears and then get a royal stomachache, or so I have heard. Anyway, if you're enjoying your dessert and suddenly you have to stop and think, "Red cookie. That means I've just eaten four. Should I have four more? Yes," that's not quite as carefree and pleasurable. Maybe it results in you eating fewer cookies, but what is the point of eating cookies if you can't enjoy them without remorse? And then there are those of us for whom these stop signs could have the opposite effect: Oh, you want me to stop here? I'll show you. I can eat 1,000 of these chips. Just watch me. Agggghh. Someone call an ambulance.

So maybe the solution is to have two separate products for every kind of snack? One would be the normal product that's free of stop signs, and the other would be a package filled exclusively with stop signs. They could come with cute flavor names like "guilt" and "shame," and with every bite you could stop and consider that you are about to ingest yet another little calorie bomb that will travel directly to your hips or your ears or whatever you're worried is getting too fat. Sounds delicious, right? Lays Stop Signs: Bet You Can't Eat Just One!

'Edible stop signs' in snack foods could serve as visual cue to stop eating: study [NYDN]

Image via ra3rn/Shutterstock.