Relax and have a drink with author Dr. Brian Wansink today
From the first time I was introduced to Dr. Brian Wansink back in July following his famous ice cream study, I knew this was a man I wanted to interview at my blog. So when he released his book from Random House Publishers entitled Mindless Eating, a door of opportunity was opened and I had the privilege of meeting this man who believes our eating and drinking habits are much more than meets the eye--LITERALLY!
Although many researchers like Dr. Wansink can seem to be a bit stuffy and dry, what I found with him is just the opposite. This is a man who not only enjoys the work he is doing, but he LOVES life and the people who live in it. He told me that he sincerely hopes people who have struggled with losing weight will be encouraged and enlightened by his book to hopefully shed some light on why they have been stuck being overweight or obese all their lives. He thinks he's found the answer.
Let's explore what those answers are in my interview with Dr. Wansink.
Have you read the hottest new diet book of 2006 yet?
1. I am pleased to welcome to the "Livin' La Vida Low-Carb" blog today Dr. Brian Wansink, behavioral researcher from Cornell University and author of the bestselling new book release entitled Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. This man's 20-year scientific career has been built around the concept of subconscious eating and how it makes even educated people tend to eat more than they really should. How did you first get interested in this subject and are you ever surprised by the results of your experiments even after all these years?
I grew up in the middle of the food-farm belt--Iowa-–and I love to eat. Yet as time has gone by, I’ve found food to be both a source of pleasure for people as much as it is a huge source of concern. Even very insightful, very articulate people seem vexed and almost speechless when it comes to why they ate what they ate or ate too much. I realized that if I could start shedding light on some of these choices, I might be able to make people eat less, eat better, and enjoy it more.
What I find most surprising is that across the hundreds of studies we’ve done across thousands of people, almost nobody is willing to believe that they are influenced by their environment. We all want to believe we are too smart to be influenced by the lighting in a room, or what the person across the table is doing. That’s why these cues are so dangerous to our diet.
2. The crux of your research is primarily about portion sizes and the extra calories that are consumed on a whim by people depending on the specific circumstances. How much can you extrapolate about actual human behavior regarding portions within the confines of a laboratory? In other words, what is the real-life application of your work and does it always match up with the results of your studies?
A good part of my research is about the quantity of food we eat in excess of what we intend or what we would be satisfied with. For almost all of our studies are tested both in the Lab and then in a “real life” settting. If a study shows something “works” in the lab, we next test it in “real” world settings like grocery stores, movie theatres, summer camps, PTA meetings, sorority houses, or church potlucks. We have gone to Chicago movie theatres, New Hampshire restaurants, Massachusetts summer camps, Iowa grocery stores, Philadelphia bars, Michigan diners, San Francisco homes, U.S. Army bases, and to restaurants around the country. We are looking to see if the same factors that work in the lab also influence everyday people in everyday situations.
3. In your famous ice cream bowl experiment, you provided study participants with 34-ounce bowls or 17-ounce ones and found that the people with the larger bowls ate nearly one-third more ice cream than the people with the smaller bowls. While this is indeed fascinating information, Dr. Wansink, I think it misses the point regarding human behavior towards food because it did not allow for the very likely variable that the people using the smaller bowls would go back for seconds. Have you conducted any experiments that allowed for such normal behavior such as this to take place or would you consider doing such experiments that would much more closely mimic the actual real-life actions that people make for a more accurate experiment?
In the case of the ice cream social study, the people were given either 17-ounce or 32-ounce bowls. Those with the smaller 17-ounce bowls never came close to filling them up to begin with. If we had given people really small bowls, the refill issue would have been particularly relevant, but we pretested this to make sure the 17-ounce bowl wouldn’t give such an artificial constraint.
We have done a lot of studies where people are allowed the opportunity to refill their smaller bowls and plates. Across all of these studies, there’s a little bit of compensation, but the difference drops very little--usually from a difference of around 30% down to around 25%.
4. Along these same lines, you speak very highly of the 100-calorie snacks in your book as a way to help people limit their caloric intake to predetermined levels. But, again, let's talk reality here. I used to weigh 410 pounds and there's no way I would have limited my portion size to just one bag of 100-calorie Cheese-Its, Oreos, or any other of these so-called convenience foods. While this is certainly a brilliant consumer marketing strategy for these companies bolstered by the very research you have done, the reality is people will eat a lot more than one bag of these products. Are we sending the weight loss consumer the wrong message by encouraging these supposedly healthy junk food products?
That’s very true with some people in some occasions. We’ve found, on average, people end up eating about 70% as much as they do when they “free feed.” That is, some people eat 2 packages, but this is still a bit less than they otherwise might. The danger is with people who want, let’s say, a little more than 2 bags, but less than 3. Once they open that third bag, it’s gone.
5. The main theme of your research is centered around the proper portion proportion--are the portion sizes we are accustomed to the appropriate amount of food we should be eating for long-term weight maintenance? Doesn't this actually vary widely from person to person and depend heavily on the kind of food that is consumed (i.e. fat, protein, carbohydrates)?
The first 3 chapters of Mindless Eating is about portions, but Chapters 4 and 5 deal with the frequency of eating, 6 and 7 the enjoyment of food, and 8 and 9 how we can be smarter parents and consumers.
With regard to portions, this does vary widely from person to person and by the type of food. When I work with some people, they find it useful when I give them the rule of thumb “Think 20% more or less.” That is, think or eating 20% more of the healthy foods and 20% less of the less healthy foods. Another way to look at this is to think one scoop less or one scoop more.
6. If calories are just calories, then why should people be eating fruits and vegetables instead of the same equivalent calories for chocolate cake? Are they truly equal or is there something better about eating healthier foods like berries and leafy greens instead of sugary cakes?
I’ve always found the psychology of food more engaging than the biochemistry of food. In trying to recall the biochemistry, I think I won’t be shedding any new light on this other than the healthier foods depending on what they are such as having more nutrients, including extra fiber, and being less processed.
7. You said in an e-mail to me recently that "if a person wants to lose a lot of weight a serious diet, a low-carb approach like the one you recommend can be very useful for a disciplined person." However, you mention several criticisms of the low-carb nutritional approach in the back of your book when highlighting several popular low-carb programs. Why do you believe the low-carb lifestyle takes "a disciplined person" to lose weight and what are your main concerns about the diet that cause you to have some reservations about it for the majority of overweight and obese people? Isn't the "Mindless Eating" diet just another in a long line of low-calorie/portion control diets that have failed to produce any measurable results in people?
For a disciplined, serious person, a low-carb program appears to be the fastest way to lose a lot of weight. I’ve been able to publish some articles with Governor Mike Huckabee from Arkansas who lost 100 pounds plus in a year on the program.
From some of our work, we’ve found that the majority of fair-weather dieters don’t want or need to lose 100 pounds, but 80% say they would be pleased to simply lose an average of around 15. For these people a drastic diet may not be worth the pain and discipline it would take. Making a small adjustment, such as correcting a mindless 200-calorie per day overconsumption, would lead them to lose 20 pounds in a year--without dieting. The theme of Mindless Eating is “The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.”
8. One of your experiments found that people eat 14 percent more of foods that are labeled with "low-fat" than their full-fat counterparts. This is a problem that very likely exists with those foods marked "low-carb" as well. What are some pro-active tips for people to stop being duped by such manipulative psychological marketing strategies like these that companies use to sell their products?
Absolutely. This is the health halo. One rule of thumb we recommend consumers do is to “Eat a ‘low carb’ food as if it had DOUBLE the carbs you think it does.” This helps keep some people in check.
9. Why is eating something like a large order of high-carb French fries from McDonald's acceptable to you as long as someone commits to exercising that same day? Is this really an equitable trade-off that is helpful to people, especially those wanting to lose weight, in the long run in your opinion? Aren't you just rewarding good behavior (exercising) with an extremely bad food choice (French fries) that will send the person's blood sugar levels into a rollercoaster ride? What's wrong with encouraging healthy rewards in response to good choices regarding health?
One risk of exercise is that some people subsequently overeat, thinking they are compensating for the calories they burned. They almost always overeat. The key to Mindless Eating isn’t in necessarily giving up all the foods a person loves. It’s being more naturally mindful (not obsessively mindful) as to some of the tradeoffs required.
In one study we’ve done, we found that listing the number of miles a person would have to walk if they consumed a 300 calorie bag of granola lead them to eat less than if we just had the calorie count in it. For many people, it’s not necessary that they eliminate all "bad” food, just that they trim it down.
The key to Mindless Eating, is that you can set up some of your own rules and trade-offs so nothing is off-limits as long as you see the bigger picture.
10. THANKS for sharing your comments with us today in this interview, Dr. Wansink. The work you are doing is extremely important in the context of understanding the always complex issues of diet and health. One last question for you: Do any of your experiments deal with the ever-growing problem of "emotional eating?" Have you or would you consider purposely put study participants through an upsetting situation and then offering them food to see how they will respond? This would be trickier to conduct, but would be quite interesting I am sure. Are there other ways to account for this missing piece of the overeating puzzle?
First of all, thank you for the work you have done with your website and in sharing your story to others. I’ve followed it for some time and it does a great service in offering important encouragement to others.
Emotional eating is something I address in Chapter 8 entitled “In the Mood for Comfort Foods.” One curious finding is that we are at risk of overeating whenever we experience strong emotions--both negative ones and positive ones. We use foods to improve (short-term) negative moods and maintain the positive ones. We’ve also found that a person can eat a smaller amount of food in both cases, and still feel satisfied.
We haven’t been able to come up with an exact percentage of how much you have to eat to be equally satisfied because this varies across people, foods, and moods. For some, eating only 15% of what they otherwise would is enough to satisfy them.
This is not the last we have heard from Dr. Brian Wansink and I appreciate his willingness to share his experiences with us today. I have a special surprise coming up for readers of my blog very soon with the "Mindless Eating" book, so stay tuned for that in the coming weeks.