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Science Talk

Why We Eat, Eat and Eat Some More; and Remembering Mr. Wizard

In this episode, Brian Wansink, eating behaviorist and director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, talks about "Mindless Eating" habits; and Doug Lane, who was once a youngster on the Mr. Wizard TV series, remembers his time with the late Don Herbert. Plus we'll test your knowledge of some recent science in the news. Websites mentioned on this episode include www.mindlesseating.org; www.mrwizardstudios.com

Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American for the seven days starting June 20th. I am Steve Mirsky. This week on the podcast, Brian Wansink is going to discuss the reasons we eat way more than we think we do and Doug Lane will share some memories of being on the Mr. Wizard Show when he was a kid, plus we’ll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news.

First up, Brian Wansink. He is the director of the Food and Brand Laboratory at Cornell University, where he is also a professor on the Applied Economics and Management Department; and he is the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. I was in Ithaca, New York a couple of weeks ago and caught up with Wansink at the Cornell Store after a book signing.

Steve: Hi Dr. Wansink. How are you?

Wansink: It's good to be with you, Steve.

Steve: Great to talk to you. So—mindless eating!

Wansink: (laughs)

Steve: It sounds kind of obvious, but what is mindless eating?

Wansink: One thing we find is that if you ask a typical person how many food related decisions a day they end up making, most people say 30 or so. In reality we find that a typical person makes between 200 and 300 decisions a day about food; because it's not whether you are going to eat Cheerios or Froot Loops, it's if you're going to have half a bowl or [a] full bowl or a second bowl; it's whether you're going to add sugar, whether you're going [to] put mayonnaise on it, whether you're going to add skimmed milk or whole milk, how much milk and, damn, before you even know it, you made 20 decisions; you didn't even have a bite to eat. And that's mindless eating. It's making these decisions, but not even realizing you're being influenced by the things around you.

Steve: That number is just a big surprise; a lot of that number [is] "I'm not going to eat that."

Wansink: Yeah! I mean part of it is, if you have a bowl of candy dish on your desk, every time you look at that candy dish, you have to say, do I want that piece of candy or do I not want it?

Steve: I see—if you've got M&Ms that could be 200 decisions a day.

Wansink: (Laughs) Well that's right. In the first 25 decisions, it might be no, no, no, no; but decision number 26 might be maybe, and by the time you get to decision 30, it's, "Yep, I deserve it." (laughs)

Steve: Your studies—we've covered a couple of your studies in the magazine; and on the podcast, that was the study about the size and shape of drinking glasses …

Wansink: Yeah!

Steve: … and how that fools people into thinking they've had a certain volume of a liquid when they've had more. And the other study I remember was that[about] the chicken wing—the Super bowl Party Chicken Wing Study. You want to talk about those briefly; and how are they [are] illustrative of the kind of work that you do in general?

Wansink: One of things we know is that people end up eating and pouring a whole lot more than they think they are, simply based on the shape of the glass they are pouring into or the size of the bowl they are eating out of and pouring into. And what else will happen is, we're are pouring out too a big dish—for instance, I mean, six ounces of pasta on an eight-inch plate. It looks like a pretty good-sized portion; but six ounces of pasta on a 12-inch plate, it doesn't even look like an appetizer, so you keep adding food on. What we know is that anytime you serve yourself you are eating about 92 percent of anything you serve. So if you serve yourself more because of the size of the plate, hey you are going to eat it. With glasses what we found is that (laughs) people have a tendency to pour more into short, wide glasses than they do in tall, skinny glasses of the same volume. Probably what's going on is that, here we are used to judging things by looking at height and not by kind of moving your head side to side. So, as a result, even professional bartenders will pour about 28 percent more alcohol into a short, wide tumbler than they will in a tall, skinny highball glass that holds the same amount.

Steve: And the chicken wings study?

Wansink: (Laughs) Well one of the things that happens there is that we know that you eat with your eyes and not with your stomach. A stomach can't count, and it has a terrible time telling us when it is full, so what we tend to do is we judge how much we're going to eat based on our eyes; but once the food's gone, we['ve] got no idea what we just ate. And so on the Super bowl study, what we ended up doing was bringing people in to watch the Super bowl [and] either bus[s]ed their tables or we didn't bus their tables; they were eating chicken wings, and what we found is that people who had their tables bus[s]ed ended up eating [more].

Steve: So the tables were cleared away, and they don't see the bones that they've—the leftovers of what they've eaten?

Wansink: [They] really can't count how many they've had, and we find that they end up eating—it's about 32 percent more calories if you simply bus their plates; but when they leave (laughs)—you've eaten about seven, you know, bones—later that night, you ask him how many they've eaten, they end up thinking they have eaten about four or five—no idea.

Steve: Why are we so stupid?

Wansink: One thing that goes on is food I[ha]s always in the United States been a very secondary activity. You actually sit down to talk to people and you happen to eat. You meet with friends and you order something to eat, you watch TV and you eat. So we always tend to do it in very distracting environments. The counting, the calibrating, the recalling how much we ate isn't a priority in[and] it never even really registers.

Steve: But even when its seemingly is a priority—in your book you talk about the Subway versus McDonald['s] Study?

Wansink: Yeah!

Steve: So even there was at Subway all the nutritional information is readily available. Why don't you talk about the results of that?

Wansink: Yeah! Well, I mean that's one thing that we've done is that, if you eat at some restaurants, they have these tremendous health halos that surround them. You know, you eat in Subway, they think, "Man, you know that [Jared]jeered guy lost a bunch of weight—I am going to lose a bunch of weight; in fact every thing here must be really healthy". But what we find is that when people end up leaving McDonald's, they end up eating on an average about 800 calories of food. But if you ask them how much they ate, they guess they ate about 750—even they are fairly accurate. People eating from Subway for instance, alternatively end up eating about 650 calories on an average for a meal; they end up believing, however, they ate about 325.

Steve: Wow! And that's because there are notices in the shops that say that we have all these low-fat alternatives, but the people don't order those low-fat alternatives.

Wansink: Well, you know, we've heard people say, "Well, you know, why do you order this? Well, because I read what it has six or seven grams of fat". You know, like, this is a 12-inch meal bowl[deal] served with cheese (laughs). And what happens is they don't really think that closely on—the entire health halo from the entire store kind of blinds [them] on everything, whether it be the cheese, the mayonnaise, the chips and cookies.

Steve: So how do people become more aware of their eating habits?

Wansink: Well it's not really clear that lots of people want to become aware of their eating habits. Some, you know, people want to eat better, and they might want to lose weight, but they don't want to say—if you ask somebody to keep a food diary for a week as to what they ate, most people won't do [it] for more than a day. Most of us want to figure out a way we can eat less and eat better without painfully doing so. One of the things that we find is the secret of mindless eating—to reverse the mindless eating—is[n't] that to be mindful when you eat, but instead it's just to re-engineer your environment—whether it be your home or where you work—so that you can mindlessly eat less rather than mindlessly eat more all the time.

Steve: So switch to smaller plates—is it as simple as that?

Wansink: Well that can be one thing for some people, and for other people it can be moving a candy dish six feet away or replace it with a fruit bowl; or instead of serving meals family-style—such as the stuff you don’t want to overeat like the pasta or the meat—after you serve yourself, put that back on the corner[counter]; so you can have seconds or thirds, but you've got to get up, you've got to walk six feet to get it. It can be as simple as using the half plate rule. You can have anything you want to eat for lunch, but half of your plate has to be filled with fruit, vegetables or salad. Using simplest rules like this, just doing, making small changes—two to three a month we used to say is enough to get you back [on]in the right course, so you can eat what you want without having to obsess about calories or without having to make a food diary and things like this.

Steve: Talk a little bit about the second half of your book—you talk about parental influences on food attitudes and the related issues.

Wansink: What we do, I mean, what we find is that no generation of children seems to have healthier eating habits than their parents did. We find—that's short of their being in starvation and things like this—we tend to find is that parents have an incredible influence on what their kids end up eating. They are their nutritional gatekeepers; and in fact we find that the person who purchases and prepares most of the food in the household has been influencing about 72 percent of all the eating decisions that that family makes. That can be for the better or it can be for the worse. If it's for the better, if they end up putting buying lots of fresh fruit and put them on the middle shelf of the refrigerator. As of being for the worse, they bake cookies or if (laughs) they go buy potato chips by the dozens. It ends up being for the better if they give their children a little snack pack to take in case they get hungry at school. It's for the worse they just give them a wad of money and say, "If you get hungry, buy whatever you want."

Steve: Why do most diets fail?

Wansink: Most diets are depravation diets. They are based on depriving yourself of something—and it could be carbohydrates, it could be pizza and French fries, it could be, you know, never eating dessert again—but each time we take away something that we really, really like. Eventually it's not sustainable—its going to backfire and it doesn't matter whether it's food we love or whether it's affection or TV, just taking anything away that people like is not a sustainable equilibrium in the long run.

Steve: So in fact all diets fail, really—isn't that the case?

Wansink: Yeah! [The] vast majority seem to backfire eventually. Or they might lead to immediate weight loss but then they get regained because what isn't changed—there is no pattern that's changed. It becomes a very short-term means to an end, and that's why with mindless eating—just making small changes in your environment that you can do for a lifetime—end up being fairly easily.

Steve: How did you get so interested in this kind of work?

Wansink: Well you know, I grew up in an isle[Iowa] which is a very sort of agricultural area where it has been interesting—how you can get people to eat more fruits and vegetables since that's what we raised on the farm. So its just gone from, how can I get people to make better choices to how can a person get himself to eat less of the food and not overindulge—either eating too frequently or eating too much when they do eat?

Steve: So, if you had to give, you know five quick tips for people who want to continue to eat mindlessly, but better, what would you say?

Wansink: Well that depends on what your problem is. We find there is five basic dietary danger traps. One is meal stuffing. You know if meal stuffing is a problem there is a bunch of things you could do, but one thing can be as simple as moving your plate—moving serving bowls off the table. Another one ends up being snack raising. If snack raising has been a problem, then the easier thing to do is to replace a candy dish with a fruit bowl; or telling yourself you can have anything you want [as]is a snack as long as you eat a piece of fruit beforehand. Another one of the dietary danger zones ends up being restaurant indulging. If restaurant indulgence is a problem, one thing you can end up doing to help minimize the problem is to use the rule of two, which means—you can order [a] side dish, you can have a piece of bread, you can have a drink, and you can observe[order desert]—picking only two of those; you can't have all four of them. Another one ends up being sort of party binging. If party binging ends up being a problem of yours, you can essentially use [a] technique where you just put no more than two items in[on] your plate [at] any one time. You can fill your plate with those two items, but with only two items in[on] your plate [at] any one time, you are not going to over indulge. The last one is the area of dashboard or desktop dining, where you end up eating while you are driving or eating when you are doing computers. We are finding that people—if they eat at the computer, they underestimate the number of calories they eat, and they eat more than they do if they are eating with a friend even.

Steve: You don't even notice that you've eaten so you don't get the satisfaction.

Wansink: No, not at all. And certainly its ends up—you end up, you know, not really enjoying the experience. It's—who wants to work with the heat[while they eat]? Who wants to work for their lunch hour? And [it] ends up really backfiring.

Steve: So anybody who is eating while you are listening to this—be mindful of the fact that you are actually eating in addition to listening.

Wansink: We are a culture of parallel processors and multitaskers. Unfortunately, even—in[one of] these tasks, for many of us, actually is eating all the time. So there is lot more information, there is photos of these studies being done, there is all sorts of free takeaways at our Web site—which is mindlesseating.org. There is also something there called the National Mindless Eating Challenge, and if you want to be a part of that, it's free and you'll get some tips every month.

Steve: What's the challenge?

Wansink: What it is, is that we find that that people have different eating goals: Some want to eat more, some eat less, someone with the[a] famil[y]ies eat[s] better. What we do is we identify what a person's goal is, and we ask him a number of questions so we can profile them in one of 256 categories; based on their category what we do is we suggest some tips that might be there that seem to be most correlated with success for their particular profile person.

Steve: Well bon appetite, Dr. Wansink—thanks very much.

Wansink: (Laughs) It's great to see you again, thanks.

Steve: By the way, Brian Wansink's wife was trained at the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute in Paris. Their kids will have interesting childhoods. We'll be right back.

Male voice: Science video news now at SciAm.com—easy to view and updated three times a day. Video news, just a click away at SciAm.com/video.

Steve: Now it's time to play TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: A whale killed last month had survived another whale hunt around the year 1890.

Story number 2: Pluto was demoted to dwarf planet status, but new finding[s] show that at least it's the largest of the dwarf planets.

Story number 3: A California bicycle manufacturer is constructing bike frames out of bamboo.

And Story number 4: The overwhelmingly vast majority of people who suffer human bite wounds are men.

We'll be back with the answer. But first—Don Herbert died last week. He was better known as TV's "Mr. Wizard", and he entertained and taught science to a couple of generations of kids, first in the 50's and 60's and then again in the 80's. Herbert won a Peabody Award for the program in 1953. The show featured Herbert and a youngster who would do a science experiment together. Well Doug Lane was the youngster on many of the programs in the late 50's. I called Lane at his home in Long Beach, California.

Steve: Mr. Lane, good to talk to you.

Lane: Hi. How are you?

Steve: I'm fine, thanks. So how did you wind up being on Mr. Wizard's show?

Lane: Well when I was five years old, I was actually in an off Broadway production at a playhouse, the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City—and actually my father in that show was Steve McQueen. And it was just had a run for two weeks, but from that I had an agent; and for the next five years I went for auditions and never got any work until the Mr. Wizard's situation came up and I went for the audition.

Steve: So you went from being Steve McQueen's kid to a kid on Mr. Wizard.

Lane: That's right.

Steve: That is quite a theatrical career.

Lane: It is.

Steve: So how old were you when you started doing Mr. Wizard's show?

Lane: I was about a 11 years old. The interview was at his office on 23rd Street in New York City where he actually did the experiments. And we had rehearsals for all the shows. And it was just myself and several other people; it wasn't one of these cattle calls with lots of children actors. Quite interesting!

Steve: And you did the show for how long?

Lane: I did the show for three years. I was on the tenth anniversary show [of the ]to Watch Mr. Wizard series, and I was unknown as any other boy at the time.

Steve: And what year was [it] that you started?

Lane: I started in ’58 and I think I ended in ’61.

Steve: So tell us a little bit about Don Herbert. How he was to work with, and how [did] he geot the science across?

Lane: Well he was always very professional. At the introduction to each show each week, we were unscripted and it was a live, one-half-hour show without interruption; so we would just go through each of the experiments and it would be just as if, you know, he was my friend and he was showing me each of the experiments. Of course, each week, we would go through each of the experiments, and he would make notes, he would make changes, so they would eliminate things and we would work with the director and we would work with other scientific consultants to make sure they were doing what they wanted to do on that particular broadcast.

Steve: Are there any particular experiments that stand out in your memory?

Lane: Well we did one with volcanoes; I remember that was lots of fun. I have the originals layout[s]—and that's called the script, but, you know, [it was] just the layout of the shows. We did things on radioactivity and code. They were all pretty interesting. It was quite an interesting thing to do each week. I never knew what was going to happen.

Steve: Now this was network TV—on NBC was it?

Lane: That's right. We were at the NBC Studios in Rockefeller Center. We would broadcast live every Saturday at noon approximately, and [it]I would go probably to the West Coast and then it would be kinescope—the old format of using a TV to record—to play back on the East Coast. So sometimes I'd get home from at the end of the day and watch myself on TV.

Steve: So what was the place of that program in popular culture at that tim[e]ing were? Did people recognize you on the street? What was it like to go to school being on this program?

Lane: Well actually, being a pre-teen at the time, I really didn't want everyone in the world to know what I was doing, so I really didn't publicize it to my friends. I wasn't an actor kind of kid. I was just the everyday-kid-on-the-street, and I sort of kept it that way at school. But I think everyone knew the program and my experience has been over the years—and it has been 50 years since I've been on the show—but when I meet people of a certain age, they all remember the show; everyone knows [the] Mr. Wizard show.

Steve: Did it have any real influence on you? Did you wind up going into the sciences or staying in television?

Lane: Well that question always comes up. I never had real interest in science and after the show; my mother and I decided that the theater was not the best place for me either, but I did do associated things with that, with being on a TV program. I became a teacher for 10 years, and that's lot of acting there, of course. I went into the computer industry after that, and I did customer service and training and then nowadays, in my last career, I am a substitute school teacher. So I guess I'm using a lot of those same skills that I learned on the program, at least, you know, working with other people.

Steve: Definitely—and you know it's kind of an obvious question, but what was your reaction when you heard that Donna [had] died last week?

Lane: Well I was—I had done some communication with the family recently, and I had heard that he had been ill; and I had not seen him unfortunately, when he was well enough. I just moved to Long Beach a year ago and I am sorry I didn't get a chance to see him. So, I had already heard that he was quite ill and it brought back a lot of memories. It's because it's the kind of thing you don't—I didn’t really think of this show very much over the most of my life other than as an oddity. Now that it has come back, I'm in sort of melancholy about it, and it is bringing back a lot of good memories and making me realize what happened in my childhood was probably a very good thing.

Steve: Well, Mr. Lane—pleasure to talk to you today. Thank you very much for your time.

Lane: My pleasure, Steve.

Steve: Many of Mr. Wizard's programs are available at www.mrwizardstudios.com; and to see a brief clip of the very young Doug Lane, hit the link there for the Watch Mr. Wizard series, then go to volume seven and watch the clip about radioactivity.

Now it's time to see which story was TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. ! Let's review the four stories.

Story number 1: A recently killed whale had survived another hunt over a century ago.

Story number 2: It may be a dwarf planet, but Pluto is the biggest dwarf planet.

Story number 3: Bamboo bicycles.

And Story number 4: Most human bite-wound victims are men.

Time is up.

Story number 1 is true. When hunters killed a bowhead whale last month, they found inside the whale a fragment of an old weapon called a bomb lance that had hit the whale around the year 1890. The whale was estimated to be about 120 years old and might have lived to 200. Whale age is estimated by the condition of the proteins in the eye lenses.

Story number 3 is true. Bike maker Craig Calfee got the idea for bamboo bikes when he watched his dog try unsuccessfully to tear apart some bamboo outside the bike shop. He has built 91 bamboo bikes so far, according to the LA Times, and there is a SciAm connection here. Calfee decided to try to encourage cheap bamboo bike production in Third World countries where bamboo is common and bicycling is a major mode of transportation after he read the book, The End of Poverty, which is by Jeffrey Sachs, who is the director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and is also a columnist for Scientific American Magazine.

And Story number 4 is true. A study in the July issue of the Emergency Medicine Journal found that 92 percent of those admitted to ERs with human bite wounds were men. The wounds typically involved—surprised—fighting and alcohol consumption, and though this particular study was done in Ireland, other recent studies in the U.S. have shown that up to 20 percent of bite-wound ER visits are the result of human choppers.

All of which means that Story number 2 about Pluto at least being the largest dwarf planet is TOTALL.......Y BOGUS. Because research reported last week revealed that the dwarf planet, Eris, is actually bigger than Pluto. For more, check out the June 18th episode of the daily Sciam podcast 60-Second Science.

Well, that's it for this edition of the weekly Scientific American podcast. You can write to us at podcast@SciAm.com; check out news articles at our Web site, www.SciAm.com; the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science is at the Web site and at iTunes. For Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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