Most people eat whatever you put in front of them. This at least is the quintessence of a best-selling book, titled “Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam Books, 2006), by Brian Wansink. The author is not a medical doctor, dietitian, psychologist or a chef for that matter. Wansink is a professor for marketing in the Applied Economics and Management Department at Cornell University. His subject of interest is not what we should eat or stay away from. He wants to know why we eat what we eat and why we eat so much of it.
“Everyone – every single one of us – eats how much we eat largely because of what’s around us,” he says. “We overeat not because of hunger but because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers. The list is almost as endless and it’s invisible.”
In Wansink’s opinion, dietitians and other health practitioners focus too much on what they know best, which is the ins and outs of the nutritional properties of our foods. Their concerns are focused on calories, fat content, cholesterol levels and so forth. By contrast, Wansink is more interested in the psychological aspects of food consumption, more like marketing experts in the food industry approach the subject. Instead of questioning the nutritional quality of the food people eat every day, we should rather ask what makes these foods so attractive to consumers that they just can’t get enough of them.
This is why traditional diets and weight loss programs often don’t work in the long run. They don’t understand or don’t take sufficiently into account what motivates people to reach for food in the first place.
In a series of experiments, Wansink and a team of researchers tried to demonstrate how our eating habits are heavily influenced by outside cues that have little or nothing to do with food. For instance, there is significant evidence that eating is strongly connected to emotional states, like stress, anxiety, boredom, depression and so on. Actual hunger or the seductive power of smells and tastes play in fact a much smaller role when it comes to food choices. In one particular experiment, participants were given five days old stale popcorn that was definitely not very palatable. Still, most of them ate considerable amounts of the tasteless popcorn when it came in supersized buckets instead of small or medium-sized bags. Serving sizes have apparently an enormous influence on our food intake – even to the point where quantity trumps quality. A tasty but smaller meal seems to be less valuable to many people than an overflowing plate at an “all-you-can-eat” joint. More bang for the buck.
The desire to take advantage of a good deal is not the only motivator, as the Wansink tests found out. Presentation, ambiance, lighting, background music, social interactions, service, prestige and other perceived values all play a role in our eating behavior. Not all of these influences affect us consciously, of course. They surround us, but we don’t necessarily realize the power they have over us.
When asked about the reasons for their choices, almost all test participants were able to give plausible answers. The researchers observed that especially intelligent and educated people had the capacity to rationalize their behavior, even when their actions bordered on the absurd. “I just wanted to celebrate tonight,” or, “It was a Friday night,” or “I deserve a little fun once in a while.” Some of these were statements made by students after a night of binge drinking and eating to the point of physical sickness and exhaustion. Wansink calls this the “intelligence trap,” by which he means our ability to rationalize even some of our most unreasonable behavior. Apparently, education does not always make us smarter, certainly not when it comes to basic issues like eating and drinking.
The logical question is, what would then work for us to break bad habits and adopt better ones? Wansink suggests that we probably will have to trick ourselves into better behavior, or as he calls it, into “mindful eating.” “This whole idea that you can prevent mindless eating with the power of your mind is a tremendous fallacy,” he said in a recent interview. “When I talk about mindless eating, some people erroneously say, then the secret to solving mindless eating is to eat mindfully.”
Wansink, however, does not think that’s a workable proposition. “For most Americans, our lives are way too chaotic to accommodate that.” Indeed, living every day in a state of constant mindfulness seems not only exhausting but also not very desirable. If anything, it would add another layer of stress to our already overburdened lifestyles.
So what else could we normal mortals do? Wansink proposes to take small steps that don’t require a lot of effort and attention. For instance, you can serve all your meals on smaller plates, which would automatically lead to portion size reduction. If you buy food items in bulk for economical reasons, split them up in smaller containers and store them in different places in your fridge and pantry. If you feel the need for a mid-morning or afternoon snack, go ahead, but don’t keep snack food or candy in your sight or in your desk drawer where you can easily reach for more. Tests have shown that most people eat less when the munchies are not within immediate reach. The same works the other way around as well: Keep bowls of appetizing fruits on display in your home or office, instead of sweets and pastries, and your snacking habits will do you some good for a change.
The bottom line is that most of us can’t simply count on willpower to control our cravings and urges. Maintaining discipline and self-control may be a deserving goal, but without some reprieve once in a while it can lead to paranoid and dysfunctional behavior. Becoming over-scrupulous with food choices can very well result in additional eating disorders.
People need to understand their weaknesses and learn to avoid the pitfalls. Like recovering alcoholics or drug addicts, some individuals living with eating disorders may never be able to let their guard down completely. Weight management can be a battle that lasts a lifetime. Still, we all have the ability to learn from our mistakes and correct them by better recognizing the causes behind our actions.
This article is based on a recent interview with Brian Wansink, PhD, published in Nutrition Action (5/2011), the “Health Letter“ of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun™,” available on her blog http://www.timigustafson.com and at Amazon. Her latest book, “Kids Love Healthy Foods™” is now available in e-book format at www.amazon.com