Sunday, November 05, 2006

When 'Mindless Eating' Stops, Weight Loss Begins

Can people really be fooled into eating more food than they want?

Are you ready to go on a diet that you don't even know you are on? Do you wanna know the secret to cutting down on the amount of calories you consume without even thinking about it? Have the diets you've tried felt too difficult to stay on with all their rules and counting? If so, then I've got some good news to share with you.

What if I told you the reason why you are fat had nothing to do with calories, carbs, or fat grams, but rather on the power of the human brain to persuade or dissuade you from eating even when you may not be hungry. Would you be interested in hearing more? Sure you would and that's exactly why Dr. Brian Wansink wrote the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.

As the Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, Dr. Wansink regularly conducts studies looking at human beings when they eat. While that sounds like a job about as exciting as watching paint dry on the wall, in actuality it is really quite fascinating work. You may think your understanding of how much you eat and why you do it are cut and dry, but Dr. Wansink causes you to give your dining habits a second look.

Through his variety of experiments, including several I recently highlighted at my blog, Dr. Wansink has uncovered some amazing behavioral traits regarding food that are absolutely astonishing:

- Did you know that removing the evidence of the actual amount of food you have eaten, such as the shells from nuts, chicken bones, or candy wrappers, subliminally tells your brain that you have eaten about one-third less than you have?

- Did you know that fancy-schmancy sounding menu item at your local upscale restaurant served on really nice dishes fools you into overindulging on it when you would likely eat less of that same piece of food at home?

- Did you know that nearly three-fourths of the food decisions made in most households is in the hands of the person why buys groceries and prepares meals?

- Did you know having an open candy dish in your home or office makes it more likely that you will snack on whatever you put in there even when you are not hungry?

- Did you know you tend to eat more food when there are guests at the table with you than if you ate by yourself or with your spouse?

- Did you know munching while watching an hour of television causes you to eat nearly one-third more food than if the program was only a half hour?

- Did you know there are five different kinds of eaters with varying solutions for breaking their mindless eating habits (check out Appendix B in the back of the book to see if you fit any or all of the categories and how to combat it)?

Perhaps you are only now beginning to understand how easy it is to slip into a lull when you are eating, especially at times when you are distracted in some way. We always hear about the dangers of distracted driving, but what about distracted eating? Could that be the culprit behind the obesity crisis we are going through? It certainly makes for a theory worth looking into further.

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think takes you through some truly remarkable statistics about what compels us to eat more and more and not even know it. Check this out:

- How many food decisions do you think you make daily? 10? 15? Would you believe the answer is over 200?!

- Eating out of bigger bowls causes even nutritional scientists to eat more than they otherwise would.

- Overweight and obese people aren't the only ones to underestimate the calories in the foods they eat--SKINNY PEOPLE DO, TOO! The only difference is heavy people eat more meals than skinny ones do.

- You know all those flashy "Low-Fat" marketing logos you see posted prominently on food packaging? Three different studies have all shown this leads people to eat 14 percent more calories than the regular fat version of that same food.

- Placing a brownie on a plate of fine china versus putting that same brownie on a napkin tricks the mind into thinking the brownie tastes better and is worth twice as much as the one on the napkin.

- Almost nine out of ten men on a date ate more food than they normally would to "impress their dates."

- Men crave comfort foods that give them a sense of being taken care of and special like steak, pasta, pizza and burgers. But women, on the other hand, are not attracted to those foods. Instead, they want convenience snacks such as cookies, chocolate, and ice cream (especially from the container since there is no cleanup required!).

Maybe this concept that Dr. Wansink has discovered really does have merit to it, huh? Examples like this run all through Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think in an extremely easy and fun book. Dr. Wansink's humor is as prevalent as his research and you can tell he enjoys what he does for a living. You will want to thoroughly absorb the important message his book has to offer anyone struggling with their weight or fascinated by the psychology behind the subject of eating. Dr. Wansink brings two decades of science to the table and we are the benefactors of his amazing experiments.

As much as I admire the work Dr. Wansink has done on this subject of mindless eating, I have a few concerns about some of the conclusions he draws based on his work. I have personally overcome my obesity problem as a former 410-pound man who lost nearly 200 pounds by becoming more conscious of what I ate. Here are a few examples of conclusions Dr. Wansink reveals in his book that may not necessarily be the right solutions:

1. EXAMPLE: Since people tend to eat less when presented 100-calorie food options, it's a good idea to have these single-serving food sizes available in your home.

WHY THIS IS THE WRONG SOLUTION: As I have previously noted in this blog post, this is nothing more than a marketing gimmick by the food manufacturers because what is to stop someone from eating 2, 3 or more of these 100-calorie snacks, hmmm? If you are counting calories, then perhaps these food items would help, but they are not the be all, end all solution.

2. EXAMPLE: Eat a piece of fruit before having a snack.

WHY THIS IS THE WRONG SOLUTION: While this sounds noble, it may not be a good idea for people watching their carb intake. Instead, do what Dr. Jonny Bowden suggests in his audiobook Change Your Body, Change Your Life: Eat a small, leafy green 100-calorie salad 30 minutes before your meal or snack to start satisfying your body with something healthy and nutritious. You'll avoid the unnecessary sugar rush that comes from the fruit (unless it's low-glycemic like berries!).

3. EXAMPLE: Go ahead and eat French fries as long as you exercised that day.

WHY THIS IS THE WRONG SOLUTION: Say what?! I'm sure Dr. Wansink means well with this tradeoff of fries for exercising, but why would you negate the positive benefits of a great cardiovascular workout by subjecting your body to such high-carb garbage junk food as French fries? Try this: Get in a 30-45 minute walk (which you should be doing daily) and then reward yourself with a delicious homemade low-carb/high-protein meal like grilled chicken, green beans, and mashed cauliflower. And if you're feeling especially proud of yourself, go ahead and have some low-carb ice cream or chocolate. Mmmmm!

Even still, I agree with Dr. Wansink that we are not the masters of our domain when it comes to eating and making small changes in our habits can keep our weight in check. Just a tweak here and there really could make a difference in the amount of food we eat. That's a lesson that all of us could stand to learn.

Interestingly, in Appendix A located in the back of the book, Dr. Wansink does a comparison of the various popular weight loss plans highlighting what they are along with the advantages and disadvantages of each, including The South Beach Diet, The Sugar Busters Diet, The Weight Watchers Points Diet, The Zone Diet, and The Atkins Diet. Considering four out of five of these diets are low-carb, it shouldn't be surprising that Dr. Wansink believes these options are "too restrictive," "not suitable for vegetarians," "too expensive," and "cuts out many valuable nutrients." Sigh. While he certainly has the right to believe these things about livin' la vida low-carb, my personal experience has shown otherwise.

Nevertheless, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think is one of the most thought-provoking books on the subject of diet that I have seen in a very long time. While calorie and portion size reduction isn't necessarily the answer to rising obesity rates, I certainly agree that we all could probably stand to cut back on the subliminal eating we are doing.

In fact, as I was thinking about the lessons from this book for this review, my wife and I went to the local theater to watch a movie. My wife wanted to get the large popcorn at the concession stand, but I encouraged her to get the medium instead even though they offered a free refill on the large popcorn. Predictably, she ate the whole bag. Can you guess what would have happened if she got the large? Thanks to Dr. Wansink, I think you know the answer to that question.

With this book still fresh on my mind, I have one final thought: I wonder if Dr. Wansink has tested his theories out on any blind people. I'd be fascinated to see how his principles apply to a group of people without any concept of portion size, plate appearance, or the other factors that seem to run throughout his experiments. Maybe we'll see those in his sequel! THANKS for sharing your wealth of wisdom with us, Dr. Wansink!

I am currently trying to set up an interview with Dr. Brian Wansink, so feel free to send me any questions you may have for him about his experiments or his book.

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Blogger Calianna said...


I guess I'm odd for a female, in that even though I certainly used cookies and other eating-right-from-the-package comfort foods, I always preferred pizza to icecream.

If the 100 calorie snack packs had been avaible back when I was scarfing down all the junky snacks I could get my hands on, I can assure you I would have never stopped at one little bag, and instead would have eaten the whole box of them.

Eat a piece of fruit before having a snack.

Silly me, I always thought that if you ate the piece of fruit, that was part of your snack! Not that fruit ever helped me much, the blood sugar nosedive would have sent me back looking for more in no time.

Go ahead and eat French fries as long as you exercised that day.

The logic of this totally escapes me too. Why would I want to put all that trans-fat and starch laden junk in my system? An hour after eating fries, my blood sugar would have plummeted to rock bottom. Which means that the next day when I attempted to exercise, I'd have felt like a hung-over slug. (sugar hangover, that is)

However, a lot of what he says rings true, especially the stuff about eating more from bigger bowls, and food tasting better when it's presented more elegantly.

As far as things like most food decisions for the family being made by the one who buys the food and prepares the meals, that's only common sense - if mom isn't buying it or cooking it, the kids aren't very likely to be eating it, and therefore the kids aren't going to be eating what's not available to them.

I think the tendency to eat more when there are guests at the table depends on just how self consious you are of your weight and food issues, because people who are overweight tend to (perhaps sub-consiously) try to make it appear to others that they aren't eating enough to be so overweight.

Makes me wonder though - did he tackle the problem of emotional eating? (or as it's known in some circles "stuffing your feelings")

11/05/2006 7:15 PM  

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