New Study: This Surprising Behavior Appears To Contribute to Overeating

Updated: Mar. 21, 2024

Penn State researchers found that one factor—which has been historically encouraged to help satiate an appetite—led to "poorer inhibitory control" with meals.

Sipping a drink with a meal tends to be a custom in our culture, and it’s also been associated with better digestion, promoting fullness, and taking a thoughtful pause between bites that can lead to well-managed portioning.

But now, a new study suggests that having a drink at mealtime might be a signal of poorly regulated eating patterns that can lead to eating more than necessary.

A study in the forthcoming March 2024 issue of the journal Appetite conducted by nutrition and food science researchers at Penn State University aimed to examine these behaviors in real-time to understand their effects on overeating behavior and the potential development of obesity.

What they discovered was that one specific behavior in individuals struggling with self-moderating their reactions to food seemed to drive them to eat more, and it was related to the beverage served with a meal.

To investigate these actions and their relationship to food intake, 42 participants were invited into a laboratory to consume varying-sized portions of macaroni and cheese over four different days.

Slightly over half of participants were of normal weight, approximately 30% were overweight, and the other 50% could be classified as obese. The amount of pasta served was adjusted by 100 grams each time, starting at 400 grams and reaching 700 grams. In addition, each meal was accompanied by 700 grams, or approximately 24 ounces, of water.

The researchers’ methodology was to record and analyze participants’ eating behaviors, including the time between bites, bite size, cessation of eating, and sipping actions.

Before the eating exercise, participants were also assessed for their food regulation control through a Stop-Signal Reaction Time task. Essentially, they were presented with plates of appetizing food to determine whether it inhibited them from taking a specific action. This allowed researchers to gauge individual participants’ habitual behaviors when they consume food.

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Irrespective of the score on the reaction time test, participants ate more overall when they received larger food portions (so don’t feel bad if you do the same, it appears to be human nature)!

Further, bite size and eating speed did not seem to influence the amount of food people consumed—however, taking frequent sips of water did. Individuals who performed poorly on the food reaction time task appeared to consume more water than those who performed better.

The research team speculates: “It is possible that individuals with poorer inhibitory control engage in greater switching behavior in order to maximize reward by delaying hedonic decline during consumption.” In other words, that “switching behavior” between bites and sips could serve as a way bigger eaters seek to prolong the pleasure of mealtime, drawing out the meal as long as possible.

Further study of this link could conclude that cognitive behavior therapy might assist in food regulation, potentially adding another layer to weight management and healthy eating. Managing switching behavior might offer a solution for individuals prone to overeating.