Why We Eat More Than We Think
by Brian Wansink, Ph.D.
Mindless eating is like Freakonomics for foodies. Wansink details a variety of studies he’s conducted to explore how and why we eat what we do, especially with regard to our inability to judge how much we’re eating or how much we will eat. Here’s the Cliffs Notes version of the book:
- The Mindless Margin. Wansink discusses how our bodies and our minds are generally fuzzy about how much food we eat or want to eat. In other words, there’s a long distance between “not hungry” and “full.” Strategy: Dish up 20% less than you normally would at each meal. You won’t notice the difference in hunger and you will get enough to eat.
- The Forgotten Food. We’re bad at remembering how much we’ve eaten. He did a study of chicken-wing eating that found eaters at tables where the bones had not been cleared ate fewer wings than those who couldn’t see how much they’d scarfed. Strategy: see what you will eat (dish up portions, don’t eat from the bag) and what you have eaten (keep empties or bones on the table).
- Surveying the Tablescape. Variety and size often drive our eating. Big plates and bowls make us want to eat more. The wider the variety, the more we eat. One study found that people eating from bowls of M&Ms with 10 colors ate more than people eating from bowls with only 7. Strategy: smaller packages and plates, smaller variety on the table.
- Hidden Persuaders. The lesson here is that if we see it, we’re more likely to eat it. Strategy: Serving dishes in the kitchen, not on the table; put snack foods in inconvenient spots in the kitchen.
- Eating Scripts. We eat in situations, changing our habits to suit. Eating with people who eat a lot makes us eat more. Strategy: be aware of the situations in which you overeat and “rescript” those scenarios.
- The Name Game. This was my favorite chapter. Wansink details how the names and atmosphere around us strongly affect our experience of food. A couple examples studies: one study gave half the people at a restaurant a free glass of Two Buck Chuck that had been re-labeled as a new California wine. They liked it and enjoyed their meal. The other half of the people got a free glass of the same wine but it had been re-labeled as a new North Dakota wine. Everything else about the situation was identical (including the design of the label). These people rated the wine as poor and actually spent less time eating at the restaurant. Another study found that adding adjectives to food names (such as “red beans with rice” becoming “Traditional Cajun red beans with rice”) makes them not only much more interesting to the eater, they actually experience the food as tasting better. Strategy: engineering your dinner parties to have success can involve adding fancy names to the food you’re serving.
- Comfort Foods. This chapter is mostly about debunking myths (namely that comfort foods are set and can’t be changed–they can, and that comfort foods comfort–they don’t, people usually eat them more when they’re in a good mood). Strategy: don’t deprive yourself. Diets based on completely cutting out some food often result in disastrous overeating when people slip. Rewire comfort foods by eating specific things in specific situations.
- Nutritional Gatekeepers. The person who buys and prepares the food for the household controls something like 70% of the food habits for the household. This chapter was most helpful in thinking about how to condition good eating habits into kids. Strategy: be a good marketer for food and control portion size.
- Fast Food Fever. Wansink argues that fast food companies don’t care whether we eat healthy or not. They just want us to spend money. If we all started ordering the salads, they would have more salads. But he also suggests that they could do more to make the food healthy without sacrificing the taste. The biggest thing to do, he says, would be not to say anything. McD’s could start using low-fat sauce on the Big Mac, but they shouldn’t announce that they’re doing it. He reveals a study that shows “healthy” fast foods often have a health halo that misleads people about how much they’re eating. At Subway, for example, people are more likely to underestimate how healthily they have eaten than at McDs; the impression that the food is healthy means that people eat more than they think. Strategy: be wary of the health halo and share food portions.
All in all, Mindless Eating gets a bit long but it’s chock full of small things you can use to “mindlessly” reengineer your eating habits in a way that makes you more healthy without feeling like you’re dieting. My favorite moment from the book is below. I have begun using it already and it helps me (I’m a drive-by snacker):
Over coffee, a new friend commented that he’d lost 30 pounds within the past year. When I asked him how, he explained that he didn’t stop eating potato chips, pizza, or ice cream. He ate anything he wanted, but if he had a craving when he wasn’t hungry, he’d say–out loud–“I’m not hungry but I’m going to eat this anyway.”
Having to make that declaration–out loud–would often be enough to prevent him from mindlessly indulging. Other times, he would take a nibble but be much more mindful of what he was doing.
Oh, one more fun fact: if you drink the eight 8oz glasses of water each day that people recommend, and you use ice water to do so, you will burn 70 calories a day eating up that water.