Cornell University's Brian Wansink talks about eating behavior and how mindless eating has us consuming way more calories than we suspect. Web sites related to this episode include www.mindlesseating.org
Steve: Welcome back to the second part of our special Best of Thanksgiving edition of Science Talk, the weekly Scientific American podcast. I am Steve Mirsky. In part two, we'll hear from Brian Wansink. He is the director of the Food and Brand Laboratory at Cornell University where he is also a professor in the Applied Economics and Management Department. And he is the author of Mindless Eating:—which is probably going on perhaps right now in your home—Why We Eat More than We Think. I spoke to him at the Cornell Store on the campus in Ithaca, New York, for a program that originally aired on June 20th, 2007.
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! 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 Fruit 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 have banana or whether you're going to add skimmed milk or whole milk, how much milk; and, bam, before you even know it, you've made 20 decisions and 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. Is a lot of that number "I'm not going to eat that"?
Wansink: Yeah! I mean part of it is, if you have a 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, so if you've got M&Ms that could be 200 decisions a day.
Wansink: (laughs) Well that's right. And the first 25 decisions, 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, there was the study about the size and shape of drinking glasses…
Wansink: Yeah! (laughs)
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 the Super bowl party chicken wing study.
Steve: You want to talk about those briefly; and [about] how 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 [ends up] happening is, [if you're] pouring onto 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. [And 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 people have a tendency to pour more into short, wide glasses than they do in tall, skinny glasses of the same volume. [Partly] what's going on is that, we are used to judging things by looking at height and not by kind of moving our heads 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: Well, one of the things that happen 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, then we‘ve got no idea what we just ate. And so in the Super bowl study, what we ended up doing was bringing people in to watch the Super bowl and either [bused] 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 [bused] ended up eating…
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, they've eaten about seven, you know, bones and later that night, you ask them how many they've eaten, they end up thinking they have eaten about four or five—they have no idea.
Steve: Why are we so stupid?
Wansink: One thing that goes on is food has 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 and it never even really registers.
Steve: But even when it's seemingly is a priority—in your book you talk about the Subway versus McDonald's study…
Steve: So, even there at Subway, [where] 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, you think, "Man, you know that [Jared] guy lost a bunch of weight; I am going to lose a bunch of weight; in fact everything 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 to estimate how much they ate, they guess they ate about 750; you know, 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 had people say, [when we ask,] "Well, you know, why did you order this?" [they say,] "Well, because I read what it has six or seven grams of fat." [We're] like, "This is a 12-inch meatball [sub] with cheese." And what happens is they don't [read things that closely]; so this entire health halo from the entire store kind of blends into everything, whether it be the cheese, the mayonnaise, the chips or cookies.
Steve: So how do people become more aware of their eating habits?
Wansink: Well, it's not really clear that a lot 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 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 to reverse mindless eating, isn't to be mindful when you eat, but instead it's to reengineer your environment—whether it be your home or where you work—so that you can mindlessly eat less rather than mindlessly eating 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 replacing 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 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 the right course, so that 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: Yeah, [well] 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 that's short of their being starvation and things like this. [What] 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 [ends up] 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, they end up buying lots of fresh fruits and putting them on the middle shelf of the refrigerator. [If it ends up] being for the worse, they bake cookies or they go and 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 if 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 [ourselves] of something—and it could be carbohydrates, it could be pizza and French fries, it could be, you know, never eating dessert again—but anytime we take away something that we really, really like, eventually it's not sustainable. It's going to backfire. And it doesn't matter whether it's the 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 seems to backfire eventually or they might lead to immediate weight loss but then they get regained; because what isn't changed, there isn't a 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 easy.
Steve: How did you get so interested in this kind of work?
Wansink: Well, you know I grew up in an Iowa which is a very, sort of, agricultural area and [and I've always been] interested in, how you can get people to eat more fruits and vegetables, since that's what we raised on the farm. So it's just gone from, how can I get people to make better choices to how can a person get himself to eat less of a food and not overindulge either by 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 [grazing]. If snack [grazing] 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 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, you can have a desert, but you can have 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 on your plate at any one time. You can fill your plate with those two items, but with only two items on your plate at any one time[you're not going to over]indulge. So, 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 [end up] finding that people, if they eat at their computer, they underestimate the number of calories they eat, and they eat more than they do if they are eating with a friend.
Steve: You don't even notice that you've eaten so you don't get the satisfaction.
Wansink: No, not at all. And certainly you end up, you know, not really enjoying the experience. Who wants to work 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, one of those tasks, for many of us, actually is eating all the time.
Steve: Well bon appetite, Dr. Wansink. Thanks very much.
Wansink: It's great to see you again, thanks.
Steve: There's lots of info on the behavior of eating at Brian Wansink's Web site www.mindlesseating.org Have a great Thanksgiving. For Science Talk the podcast of Scientific American, I am Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.
[Originally aired June 20, 2007.]