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Weight Loss

On My Bookshelf: Mindless Eating

September 20, 2011

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How much free, stale popcorn would you eat in a movie theater? Does it depend if it’s served in a medium-sized bag or a jumbo tub? And what about candy: how much would you eat if it was sitting on your desk? Would it matter if the glass dish was opaque or clear? If it had a lid? 

Well, the person who knows the answers to all those questions, and more, is Brian Wansink, Ph.D. And he compiled all those answers in a fantastic book called Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.

This is a man who has made a career studying the feeding and foraging habits of the species knows as…well, us. And, quite frankly, it’s pretty shocking. And perhaps a little depressing. Turns out we are sheep, people, spineless sheep when it comes to being suckered into eating more. Give us bigger containers, we’ll gobble more. Move those containers closer to us, we’ll scarf down more. Sit us in front of a television? Yep, more.

But the point isn’t to be entertained with tales of secretly refillable soup bowls (yes–you will mindlessly eat more soup if your bowl magically refills) and sneaky wine bottle labels (yes–you will linger in a restaurant and eat more food if you think it’s a more prestigious vintage). The point is to learn how to harness these psychological phenomena for good rather than evil.

As Wansink says: “our stomachs are bad at math”. We are terrible at keeping track of how much we’ve eaten. Was it 30 french fries or 20? The thing is, over time, it makes a difference.

What’s scary: nobody seems immune to the things that trick us into overeating. Some of Wansink’s sneakiest studies were done on people who should have known better. Like graduate students who just attended a lecture on this stuff. Turns out they will shovel more Chex Mix into their faces if served from larger bowls than from smaller bowls, just like the rest of us would.

But the good news is that you can actually use this information to improve your eating habits. Wansink talks about the Mindless Margin:

If we eat way too little, we know it. If we eat way too much, we know it. But there is a calorie range–a mindless margin–where we feel fine and are unaware of small differences.

Over the course of a year, the mindless margin can cause us to lose 10 lbs or gain 10 lbs. Totally unaware. For example, when people pre-plate their food, they eat about 14% less than when they take smaller amounts and then go back for seconds or thirds. So, make a habit of pre-plating!

This book is brilliant. There are so many fascinating tidbits and ideas–more than I can describe here. Personally, I’m always a fan of a good jedi-mind trick that helps you lose or maintain weight without feeling the pain of deprivation. As Wansink says: “the best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on”.

Hear, hear.

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