Overeating? Which hand are you using?
A study suggests that the environment in which we eat “plays a big role” in how much we eat, a researcher says.
September 20th, 2011
10:46 AM ET

Overeating? Which hand are you using?

It starts with a single potato chip.  After some rapid-fire munching, you find your fingers coated in oil and salt.  Before you know it, you’ve devoured an entire bag of chips while you're sitting in front of the TV.

Or maybe your food of passion is ice cream or pizza. Regardless, it’s caloric overload when you've polished off an entire large container all by yourself.

Mindless eating becomes a habit when people shovel food into their mouths, blissfully unaware of how much they’re eating, how full they feel and what the food actually tastes like.

Here’s a suggestion from one study conducted at the University of Southern California: Switch hands.

People who snacked using their nondominant hands reduced about 30% of their total intake, compared with those using their dominant hands, according to the study, which was published online in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

“If people disrupt the physical sequence of action that is in automatic eating, that’s one way to gain some control,” said David Neal, who had been an assistant professor in psychology at USC at the time of the study.  Since then, he has left to start his own company, Empirica Research.

For the study, Neal and his colleagues gave each participant a bag of popcorn - some were stale popcorn (popped a week ago), and others were fresh (popped less than an hour ago).

They sat in a dark movie theater and watched several trailers while they were within convenient reach of their popcorn bags.  In questionnaires, they indicated whether they habitually ate popcorn in the movie theaters or not.

After the participants left, researchers weighed the popcorn bags.  They found that the people who indicated that they regularly ate popcorn during a movie screening ate about 63% of the popcorn bag - regardless of whether it was stale or fresh.

“If you are the sort of person who bought and ate popcorn a lot in the past, as long as you’re in the environment, you continue to eat the food even when it’s stale and horrible,” Neal said.

Being in the dark movie theater environment with popcorn at easy access seemed to trigger an automatic eating habit, he said.

“People believe their eating is controlled by internal preferences,” he said.  “We think how much we eat is guided by how hungry we are or taste of the food options.  But in reality, that’s not the case.  The environment plays a big role.”

So the researchers altered the environment.  Instead of a movie theater, they set up a dark meeting room with music videos projected on a screen with popcorn at the ready.  The participants didn’t eat as much popcorn when their environment changed.

For the final study, they asked participants to use their nondominant hand if they chose to eat the popcorn inside a movie theater.

The amount of stale popcorn eaten by habitual popcorn lovers dropped about 30%.  The amount of fresh popcorn eaten also dropped, but the difference was slight.

“It’s inconvenient and disruptive to eat with the nondominant hand, but that effect is much stronger when the food is horrible,” Neal said.  “It suggests it’s not just inconvenience. It makes you think, ‘Is there a value of what I’m doing?  Does this taste good? Am I hungry?’ If the answer is no, you stop eating.”

The researchers borrowed this trick from neuroimaging studies that have shown that people’s habits are disrupted when they’re asked to perform tasks using their nondominant hand.

Dining out at a fancy restaurant using your nondominant hand might make for a really clumsy and awkward meal. So, this advice might be more practical when you’re sitting in front of the TV, where your snacking could get out of control.

“The general idea is that relying on willpower and self-control is often not very effectual,” Neal said.  “It doesn’t get people to change health behavior.”

Try changing your environment that triggers mindless eating behaviors, he suggested.  You could try switching to smaller plates and utensils to eat less, stashing junk food out of reach in shelves, or you could try eating with your left hand (if you’re a righty) or your right hand (if you’re a lefty).

But this tip may not work out if you’re ambidextrous.

soundoff (83 Responses)
  1. The forgot to factor in use of the dominant hand for the remote

    Don't think of myself as ambidextrous, but when I binge on chips in front of the TV, I'm always using my non-dominant hand to eat so that my dominant hand, my right, is working the remote. Wonder if they thought about this in the study. Ha ha! Best method to not binge, don't buy the chips.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Chris

      Man, you've really got laziness down to a science, don't you?

      September 20, 2011 at 12:04 | Report abuse |
    • kathy


      September 20, 2011 at 12:14 | Report abuse |
    • Fiona

      I thought the same thing when I read it, "forgot." Same thing when I'm using my iPad and snacking.

      I guess the real problems start when you start using both hands to shovel it in.

      September 21, 2011 at 01:19 | Report abuse |
    • Alan

      LOL..... don't buy the chips in the first place is right!

      September 22, 2011 at 00:58 | Report abuse |
    • ObviousJo

      I got a better idea, why don't you act like a grown up and stop eating so much in the first place.

      September 22, 2011 at 02:34 | Report abuse |
  2. Hungry Hippo

    LOL. It's a good idea. Until you become totally ambidextrous, and can shovel food just as fast with either hand.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Celia Bosco

      I'd give my right arm to be ambidextrous!

      September 20, 2011 at 12:02 | Report abuse |
    • Lindalou

      And then you can shovel it in twice as fast.

      September 20, 2011 at 13:04 | Report abuse |
  3. Type 1

    How about not sitting down with a full container of food to begin with?

    September 20, 2011 at 11:47 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Yormom

      Thats what they need to emphasize.

      Since controlling my own snacking/eating habits, I find that breaking up containers into controlled portions and then having that portable bag/container keeps me in check.

      The bags/tubs of popcorn you get at the theatre are way more than you should ever actually eat too. Sizing of everything has increased more than we should ever eat in one sitting, yet we fool ourselves into thinking we can eat all of it and not be affected.

      If I have a snack, its sitting down at a table, or I'm racing to work, and its already portioned properly and incorporated into my routine with my calories already calculated. If everyone got organized and were honest about what they ate, they'd eat less over all.

      😀 You can snack, just do it right.

      September 20, 2011 at 12:26 | Report abuse |
  4. Type 1

    "The forgot to factor in use of the dominant hand for the remote"

    Lol. You made that your screen name!

    September 20, 2011 at 11:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. kris

    You might want to also advice people to quit eating in front of the TV, and to restrain from eating anything at the movie theater. I bet they'll eat less calories than using their non dominate hand to eat.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:51 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Chris

      I can see cutting out the TV snacking, but c'mon, no popcorn at the movies? Fine. Then no hot dogs at baseball games either; let's just take the fun out of everything.

      September 20, 2011 at 12:06 | Report abuse |
  6. SilentBoy741

    Wow. How earth-shattering. In my study, I found that if you only eat by using a chopstick shoved into each nostril, caloric intake fell by almost 97%. Intake fell even further if the subjects were given only soup. You can mail me my Nobel Prize.

    September 20, 2011 at 11:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Jeannettelj

      What great post!!

      September 20, 2011 at 12:28 | Report abuse |
    • tigerlily


      September 20, 2011 at 12:47 | Report abuse |
    • Cedar Rapids

      sorry, you need peer review first, i want to see your research.

      September 20, 2011 at 13:49 | Report abuse |
    • Hammerdog!

      LOL! 🙂 What an image! Hilarious! You could have a career as a comdeian, or a comic writer! You absolutely made my morning! And it's my birthday! Gonna eat out tonight, and not watch any TV. Thanks again for that imagery!

      September 20, 2011 at 13:57 | Report abuse |
  7. Captain Trips

    If I'm eating popcorn with my non-dominant hand, odds are I'm dropping half of it on the floor anyhow. I wonder if the researchers factored in the floor-sweepings?

    September 20, 2011 at 12:05 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. tyler

    Eat with your right hand. Simple.

    September 20, 2011 at 12:08 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Mo popcorn please

    I would have messed up the stats on this experiment. I LOVE stale popcorn

    September 20, 2011 at 12:18 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Doug

    When I don't want to eat as much popcorn, I use my right foot.

    September 20, 2011 at 12:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. yes

    What about people who are ambidextrous?

    September 20, 2011 at 12:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. M

    Replace all the grains/sugar in this article with drug names. What kind of a message to we have? "If you smoke cigarettes with your opposite hand, you smoke WAY less and your health improves! Problem solved!" or "Just use will power to snort less coke, and you'll be healthier in no time. That's the secret."

    The USDA and the medical community tell us to eat 'healthy' whole grains and sugar in moderation. Did you know whole wheat bread, despite its "low" GI score, raises insulin higher than a Snickers? They want to keep us fat and sick so they can take all our money in medical costs. The human body IS NOT BROKEN. YOU SO-CALLED 'OVEREATERS' ARE NOT BROKEN. Grains and sugar in any form are addictive. Look back to what we've been eating for 3 million years and you'll have the answer to overeating. No more calorie counting, no more weight gain, and no more obsessing about food or beating yourself up over having no 'self control'. The message in articles like the one above are farce and tell people there is something wrong with them. There's something wrong with the FOOD. If our ancestors had baked grains and sugar as part of their diets they'd be overeating and obese, too.

    September 20, 2011 at 12:29 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Leafonthewind

      Good point. For a while now I've been choosing food based on the glycemic index, which indicates how much glucose each food creates in your blood. That's slowly starting to work for me.

      September 20, 2011 at 13:26 | Report abuse |
    • Audrey

      Our ancestors DID have cooked grains and sugars. Humans have been eating cooked grain since they started cooking food (and sugars even before that). Both have been integral parts of the human diet for millennia.

      September 20, 2011 at 22:20 | Report abuse |
    • Be Happy

      You think people will "stop obsessing about food" if they have to give up rice, a nice piece of whole grain toast, oatmeal, cereal, muffins, cookies, and cake forever? It's all about moderation. Depriving people of foods they love does not work. Weight Watchers works for many people. Leaving large numbers of foods one enjoys out of the diet forever works for almost no one.

      September 21, 2011 at 04:30 | Report abuse |
  13. Lila

    Unfair study, the only time I overeat is with movie popcorn, how can anyone resist? and yes I use my dominant hand like normal meals.

    September 20, 2011 at 12:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. timestickin

    Ok, so if I eat with my right hand I will be eating to fast opposed to using my left hand,,right? So if i switch to using my left hand to eat, I will eat slower but longer to finish the trough of oily greasy chips???

    September 20, 2011 at 12:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. krozareq

    In my case I thought it is the bowl and a half of chronic everyday.

    September 20, 2011 at 12:35 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. timestickin

    One of my favorite things to eat when i'm watching golden girls is Fat back sandwiches.. I'll sit down an watch hrs an hrs of my girls an just choke down 9 or ten sandwiches with fried pork rinds... mmmmmmmmmmm!!

    September 20, 2011 at 12:40 | Report abuse | Reply
    • D

      Sounds like you are living large.

      September 20, 2011 at 13:28 | Report abuse |
  17. ArranWebb

    I have another "useful" study. I use my elbows to spaghetti and I eat very little. I am not putting on any weight using this incredible scientific study. (CNN is becoming a news blog of little repute.)

    September 20, 2011 at 12:47 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Drunk Dude

    Instead of sitting down with a bag of munchies, I sit down with a bottle of bourbon. After a while I don't care about which hand I eat with or even what's on TV. Then I take a nap, wake up, and start all over again.

    September 20, 2011 at 12:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Mr Mojo Risin

    So I was born without a right arm. Is that why I am fat? Another cruel joke that life has played on me.

    September 20, 2011 at 12:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Yum!

    I keep both hands free by strapping a feed bag right to my face. G00GLE "Yum! Brands Feed Bag".

    September 20, 2011 at 13:00 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Wilbur

      Okay, Mr. Ed, who gave you that laptop! >:(

      September 20, 2011 at 13:40 | Report abuse |
  21. Fun times

    Who can afford to eat popcorn in a theater, $6 for a small. Note to Netflix.... sell popcorn with movies

    September 20, 2011 at 13:07 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Vinod

      From Northern Lincolnshire and Goole NHS Trust. We have 3 Hospital sites over a 70 mile raiuds with greedbelt inbetween – how would we be able to provide a a new strategic direction to Diagnostics. Are there any other models in the Country of a disperate population which would help us reshape our services?

      January 31, 2012 at 23:48 | Report abuse |
    • ccodoyiphrd

      UTd9HD yaeoyeywszdw

      February 3, 2012 at 12:07 | Report abuse |
    • zlmpdzabggl

      GK2cYt sugqjgwzepou

      February 6, 2012 at 03:16 | Report abuse |
  22. Acropolis

    How about eating with a knife and fork like they do in Europe? Try that. No fat people overthere.

    September 20, 2011 at 13:21 | Report abuse | Reply
    • D

      Fish & chips, slice of pizza, I think you can get these things in Europe. No utensils required.

      September 20, 2011 at 13:30 | Report abuse |
    • Be Happy

      There are tons of overweight people all over the world. It's not true that there are few overweight people in Europe. More people do exercise, walk, and bike places, so it's less of a problem, but it's still a problem, believe you me.

      September 21, 2011 at 04:33 | Report abuse |
  23. GnatB

    No expert, but it seems like the real solution is simply never eat "mindlessly" in the first place so you never train pavlov's dog. As somebody else stated, the real answer is simply not to sit down with a big old bowl/bag or whatever while they do something else. Willpower isn't an issue if you never create the problem.

    Eat when you're hungry, at mealtimes. Otherwise, don't. Problem solved. (ok, maybe a light snack midafternoon, but actually *stop* for it. Just don't grab a bag of chips while you do whatever else.)

    September 20, 2011 at 13:35 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Qalib

      You say the main chcraater of every book had been renamed... that reminds me of the movie Paper Man. A movie I quite enjoyed, by the way. Throughout the whole movie except for the very end, he never gets more than a sentence or two into his novel, because he keeps changing the name of the main chcraater and starting over. It almost has a groundhog day feel at times.I never knew you were the type of person who would determine who lives and who dies during your morning shower. How grisly. You must be a lot of fun at kids parties. "Suzie, settle down. This is your only warning." and you reach for a butcher knife.The author is ultimately godlike in his abilities except when it comes to spelling and punctuation. Gods don't have time for such things; that's left for the mortals to bicker over.One of the things that makes rewriting hardest (as you know) is when, for reasons of logic and continuity for larger parts of the story, you have to cut something that was very good. It isn't the right piece for it to stay, yet it's too good to throw away. Yep, that can suck.Like or Dislike: 0  0

      February 1, 2012 at 02:08 | Report abuse |
  24. Boing

    Unfortunately, I'm totally bi-handual.

    September 20, 2011 at 13:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. sara

    If using the non-dominant hand only indicated a slight decrease in the amount of fresh food eaten, then basically the study has no value except for stale food. if you are sitting at home snacking the food is likely to be fresh.

    September 20, 2011 at 13:41 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ludicrous Reporting

      I agree completely, sara. If someone only reads the first 5 or 6 paragraphs, they come away with an unsupported conclusion, unless people normally eat stale food.

      September 21, 2011 at 20:28 | Report abuse |
  26. marcia

    This is a great idea!!!!

    September 20, 2011 at 13:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  27. Adam

    I live in Detroit, Michigan and frequent some of the online dating sites ( pof, match, etc. ) One of the things I noticed was the vast difference in physique of the surrounding Metro-Detroit area girls versus the Canadian gals right across the border. This cannot be coincidence. Lets be real people, it's what they're putting into our food in this country. Our neighbors in Canada don't have half the obesity problem that we do and are not living vastly different lifestyles.

    We have to start really caring what they're putting into us and buying from the independant organic type companies until the major corporations wise up and start selling the kind of food the masses want. That's the only realistic way it's going to become financially viable to eat healthy in this country.

    September 20, 2011 at 14:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Lee

    I tried this theory. For a month I only ate using my left hand. I ended up gaining five pounds in my left buttock cheek.

    September 20, 2011 at 14:33 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. NYCitizen

    I m curious as to whether using the non-dominant hand would aid those who want to stop smoking, or curb/stop drinking? I betcha it does help.

    September 20, 2011 at 15:14 | Report abuse | Reply
  30. NYCitizen

    P.S. to previous post and to some of you who posted before me: If you really think about the concept of using the non-dominant hand...it helps in breaking the psychological aspects of over-eating, and I have a hunch that it wouild break the psychological aspects of smoking and excessive drinking...(c'mon folks, once in a while use your brains...)

    September 20, 2011 at 15:17 | Report abuse | Reply
  31. No Brainer

    Which hand am I using? I'm over-eating. Obviously I'm using both hands!!!

    September 20, 2011 at 16:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  32. Brandi

    If people are mindlessly eating then they will probably mindelssly switch back to their dominant hands and continue chowing down. Problem not solved.

    September 20, 2011 at 17:04 | Report abuse | Reply
  33. Kari Anderson

    I think this does not take into account what that person normally gets- did they get the same size they normally do in the first part of the study? If so, then as long as they kept that the same throughout, then I could see some worth to this... But as one person previously commented... if you get too into it you forget why you are eating with the non-dominant hand and soon revert to the dominant one... doesn't that make the point moot- it's still your willpower- if you have to think of using hand A vs. hand B, you obviously have the ability to control yourself. It's a simple solution- make yourself eat less! That's it!!

    September 20, 2011 at 21:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. DyeDiet

    MODERATION is a golden rule of eating.
    Here is a chemist’s view point. We all need to start to be very careful about what we EAT. People think "diet coke", "gatorades", "powerades", etc., are healthy and drink them in place of water for years. Artificial colors, sweeteners and many other food additives in our food are simply FOREIGN to human's biochemistry called xenobiotic. Many of them are potentially carcinogenic others geno- or neuro-toxic. I call this the "dye diet" and I have started DYEDIET website to HELP American public to deviate from the harmful "dye diet". We are what we eat, and who knows how much less sad stories like this one would be published tomorrow if we stop eating xenobiotic chemicals today. Otherwise our children and children of our children may be increasingly diagnosed with ADHD, ADD, cancers and diabetes...

    September 21, 2011 at 01:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Josie

    When it comes to eating I am ambidextrious. It's come in handy over the years. So basically study means nothing to people like me! It's a matter of control. Yes I enjoy popcorn at a moving, who doesn't. But I get what I can eat and or share, not eat the whole thing. Plus for me home popped popcorn tastes a HUNDRED times better then that in a movie theater so I am more likely to eat more at home then there. I guess partially I can think my parents. They didn't force us to eat everything when they served us, but if we served ourselves we did....and thankfully they encouraged good eating habit (changing some of the rules they grew up with!) and now have three adult kids teaching their own kids how to eat right!

    September 21, 2011 at 08:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. The Pope

    I have someone feed me. I'm privileged.

    September 21, 2011 at 14:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. Lefty

    Also good advice for overmasturbating.

    September 21, 2011 at 15:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  38. Kevin

    If you don't buy unhealthy food, you won't eat it. If you do buy it, it will be one of the first things you eat. Not sure why this is so hard for some people. If you can't moderate how much you snack (hint: if you are overweight, I'm talking to you), then skip the potato chip aisle altogether.

    I'm no health nut and I'm not trying to put anyone down. I have been overweight a few times in my life. The key is to not stress out about it and just buy healthy foods at the grocery store. Don't bother weighing yourself or tying your progress to the time you spend at a gym. Don't plan a "cheat" day, as these just turn into cheat weeks and then months. Don't go on any special diets. Don't obsess over calories. Don't go overboard thinking that you can only eat grilled chicken and carrots. Just enjoy eating reasonably fresh foods and balanced foods and you will be at a healthy weight before you know it.

    September 21, 2011 at 16:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  39. Burbank

    Silly article. Eating with the non dominant hand would work for about a week, it that. Then the hand will be trained to do the job just as well as the dominant hand and the food gobbled just as quickly. Besides, popcorn is a great source of fiber! 🙂

    September 21, 2011 at 16:30 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Katie

      I agree, and haha you have the same name as my band director/world music teacher.(:

      September 21, 2011 at 16:37 | Report abuse |
  40. jimmymax

    I thought using the other hand would reduce masturbation, but it actually increased because it felt like someone else.

    September 21, 2011 at 22:05 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Alan

      Actually if you lay on your hand until it goes to sleep first then it really feels like someone else.

      September 22, 2011 at 01:02 | Report abuse |
  41. Tante Waileka

    Popcorn is good if you are not using the microwave type. As for eating with your non-dominant hand... I once thought "why not eat only with chopsticks? Then I won't be able to eat as much food." ha ha ha... I just came home from dinner in a chinese restaurant, where, as usual, the waiter said ! you veddy good with chopsticks! Even can pick up tiny pea."

    September 21, 2011 at 22:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  42. Alan

    Is this a dig at Muslims?!!

    September 22, 2011 at 00:59 | Report abuse | Reply
  43. Yavanna

    If you want to snack while watching a movie. Don't bring the bag of chips, pretzels or huge bowl of popcorn with you. Just grab a handful and a napkin so you have to physically get up and pause the movie if you want more. More often than not you'll get caught up in the show and only have the one or maybe two handfuls instead of the whole bag. 🙂

    September 22, 2011 at 08:56 | Report abuse | Reply
  44. Oblongcircles

    Here's an idea, eat both of your hands and then your feet, diet problems solved!

    September 22, 2011 at 09:20 | Report abuse | Reply
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  50. Name*Marcia

    This tips are very good. It is really helpfull. It is not everything that works for everyone, but somethings really works. I know for fact because I am learning about changing eating behavior for a long time. Now that I decided to practice what I learned It is working.

    April 15, 2012 at 06:54 | Report abuse | Reply
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