The food industry knows what we like: Sugar, fat, and salt have incredible power over us, and for a very good reason – survival. I recently had an opportunity to interview and attend a lecture by Brian Wansink, PhD, behavioral psychologist and author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.”
Setting the Stage for Healthy Eating
According to Wansink, we are programmed to love the taste of sugar, salt and fat. Our ancestors knew that sweet berries were safer to eat than bitter ones, and that they supplied us with much needed quick energy to help us build civilizations and flee danger. Fatty foods provided energy reserves to help us through periods of famine. Salt helped our active forbearers to retain water and prevent dehydration.
Finding convenient food was also important for survival. The less time prehistoric humans had to spend in pursuit of food, the less risk they ran of encountering something that would pursue them as food.
The concerns that our ancient ancestors had for survival are not as relevant to us today, but our preferences for sugar, fat, salt and convenience persist. So don’t blame the food industry for the overabundance of convenient foods loaded with sugar, salt and fat. That is why Wansink contends that the food industry’s only concern is to sell you the foods that you want. “They could care less if you eat it,” he claims.
Our desire for sugar, salt, fat and convenience paired with a very marketing-savvy food industry are part of the reasons we have become the fattest nation on earth. We make over 200 food decisions in a day, and many of those decisions are mindless. Wansink’s research shows that calorie consumption is greater when we are cued to eat mindlessly. He also discovered that no one is immune to it. He studied graduate students who were trained to understand the concept of mindless eating and found that they were just as likely to engage in eating mindlessly as anyone else. Conclusion: Education and intelligence do not prevent mindless eating.
It would seem that the answer to mindless eating would be to become more mindful of what we put into our mouths. However, Wansink believes that mindfulness requires too much energy to maintain. Instead he suggests that we adjust our environment to allow us to “mindlessly eat better.”
There are many cues that promote mindless eating and they very often trump hunger. The cues around us suggest when it is time for us to eat. We may habitually eat at a certain time or take a specific amount of food because that is what we are used to doing. We develop unhealthy habits we engage in frequently – simply because they have become normal to us. Wansink has discovered that we can eat on average 20% more or less without being aware of it. He calls this the “mindless eating margin.” Big portion sizes and giant-sized packages help us to become accustomed to eating more. Making a few small changes can help us to eat less. The following is a list of cues how we can re-engineer our environment to mindlessly eat better:
• Dish and utensil size: Larger plates, bowls and serving spoons can encourage us to eat about 25-30% more food. To mindlessly eat better, use smaller plates, bowls and spoons when serving and eating food.
• Glass shape: We pour a greater volume of beverage in short wide glasses than in tall narrow ones. A study conducted on bartenders showed that they over-poured beverages by an average of 37% in short wide glasses. To mindlessly eat better, drink only from tall thin glasses.
• Food package size: The larger the food package, the more we tend to eat. To mindlessly eat better, when buying larger packages for value, repackage the food into smaller portions at home right away and hide the extras.
• Variety: When presented with a greater variety of food, we will eat more total food than when we are given fewer choices. To mindlessly eat better, provide a greater variety of healthy foods for your meals, such as two different vegetables and/or a piece of fruit every time you eat.
• Visibility: If we see food, we will most likely eat it. In one study, participants ate 71% more candy when the candy in the dish was visible. To mindlessly eat better, place healthier foods in visible locations and not so healthy ones in less visible locations in your workplace and home.
• Family-style meals: We tend to take more food per serving and take additional servings of food when it is offered family-style. To mindlessly eat better, serve foods like vegetables and fruits family style and serve entrées, bread, rice or pasta from the counter. Having to get up from the table to get more food provides enough pause to determine if we are still hungry.
• Distractions: Eating while doing other activities, such as reading, working on the computer, watching TV or eating with other people promotes mindless eating. To mindlessly eat better, eat only fruits and vegetables when doing other activities. When eating with other people, pace yourself to be the last one to start eating and the last one to finish eating to avoid taking extra food.
Wansink says that “it is easier to change your environment than to change your mind.” He is currently involved in a program called “The Smarter Lunchroom Initiative.” Its mission is “to design sustainable research-based lunchrooms that subtly guide smarter choices.” Most lunchroom changes cost less than $50. By making healthy foods more visible (serving fruit in a nice bowl in a well-lit area) and offering a greater variety of healthy choices (two vegetables instead of one) schools can significantly promote healthier eating among students.
These strategies can also be used in home- and work environments. Anyone can make easy changes to eat better. You will hardly notice that you are hungry with a daily decrease of about 100-200 calories, but you will be establishing new eating patterns that will lead to significant weight loss and improved health over time. Don’t let another day, month or year go by without making a consistent change. Think about it, in a year you could be ten pounds heavier if you do nothing or ten pounds lighter if you change your environment.
Carol Plotkin, MS, RD, CDN, ACSM is a registered dietitian as well as a health- and fitness instructor. She is the owner of On Nutrition, a nutrition practice in upstate New York. As a speaker and writer she feels passionate about communicating the facts of healthy nutrition. She contributes to various blogs and other publications.
The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.