Mindless Eating

By: Brian Wansink, Ph.D.
Published by: Bantam Books, 2006

We can boil down (no pun intended) Brian Wansink's thesis to these simple sentences: the eating you do without thinking about it is the eating that will get you fat. The eating that you don't do without thinking about it will correct that situation.

Of course, how Wansink reaches that conclusion is much more involved. He spends a good part of the book convincing us that we have absolutely no idea how much we eat - that in fact, we may even deliberately find ways to misjudge what, and how much we are eating. Mostly, however, he suggests that our food cues are simply mistaken.

What are some of those cues?

How about anything free? People given free food will eat, and eat more, even if they're not hungry and even if the food isn't particularly good.

People will eat more, and enjoy it more, if they expect the food to be good. Diners given the same wine, but labeled differently, had a very different experience of not only the wine, but the entire meal. The same ordinary wine was offered either as coming from Noah's Winery in California, or from Noah's Winery in North Dakota. Diners loved the California Noah's - and consumed more - and weren't impressed with the North Dakota Noah's, and consumed less.

People eat less when there are obvious signs of what they've eaten - when how much they've eaten confronts them as they eat. People offered free chicken wings in a study ate more when the bones were cleared away frequently, than those whose bones were left as proof of how many wings they had consumed.

People eat what's on their plates, and if the plates are small, they feel as satisfied as those who eat what's on their larger plates.

A now famous study in the book had students eating soup from rigged soup bowls. Some students ate from regular bowls, but those who ate from a bowl rigged to slowly refill - keeping the level of the soup in the bowl at an almost constant level - ate 73 percent MORE soup than their fellows. We have a natural cue to finish what's on our plates.

We can be easily led to a notion of what a "normal" portion size is. For example, a 20-oz. soda will say that it is 2.5 servings. But for most of us, the 20-oz. soda is ONE serving. A small bag of chips is one serving... but then, so is however much you feel like eating out of a "family" size bag.

Another culprit in the mindless eating trap is convenience. If you had to kill, skin, butcher, and cook the meat for a hamburger, you'd be far less likely to have one on a whim than if all you have to do is pull in to a drive-thru window and order it. Likewise, simple expedients like moving the candy dish from your desk to the top of the file cabinet 15 feet away will reduce your candy consumption by 25%.

Large packaging is another trial for people trying to watch what they eat. Club stores that offer huge sized packages of food encourage people to eat more than they might otherwise. The trick here is to repackage the food immediately into smaller portions. In fact, Wansink recommends this trick as a general rule: if you buy M&Ms, immediately repackage them into smaller units of consumption. You will think twice about eating three packages of M&Ms than you will about simply diving into the 1 lb. bag again and again. (And who counts M&Ms when eating them?)

Wansink's theory is that there is a "Mindless Margin," roughly 100 calories either way, than can spell the difference between normal weight, and overweight. Deprivation diets, he is convinced, don't work. But if you never miss the calories, or the food, because you have tricked yourself into "mindlessly" eating less than you normally would, you can easily lose 10, 20, even 30 pounds in a year without ever realizing you're doing it.

Strategies include serving meals at the stove, on smaller plates, and making sure that half the plate is filled with vegetables, and half divided between meat and starches.

Recognize real hunger versus emotional hunger, and act accordingly. Real hunger builds slowly, is a physical sensation, occurs several hours after a meal and will go away when food is eaten. Emotional hunger strikes suddenly, is usually a "taste" for something ("I feel like a cookie"), is unrelated to time, and persists after eating (you can eat 10 cookies and still want more).

Don't be fooled by labels - "lite" and "non-fat" don't mean "no calorie," and can often be just as fattening as "regular" food - and less satisfying.

Design trade-offs into your eating habits. "I can have the cookie if I skip the potatoes," or "I can have the potatoes if I walk a mile."

Wansink concludes by reminding us that one 100-calorie reduction in our daily habits can result in a 10 pound weight loss over a year; 3 reductions can result in a 30 pound weight loss in the same amount of time. In other words, drop one soda, one piece of bread, and 1 pat of butter a day, and you're on your way to a 30 pound weight loss by next year.

The best thing Wansink's book does is convince the reader that we are all victims of mindless, uneducated, unhealthy eating. Even those of us who pride ourselves on knowing the calories in every bite we eat - because we probably aren't being honest with ourselves about how many bites we really ate!


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