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If anyone knows why Americans overeat and how to stop it, it's Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, New York. He pioneered the field of food psychology, and for 20 years he's been studying our oh-so-odd eating behaviors -- how we eat more popcorn, even when it's stale, if the tub is giant; how we underestimate how much soup we've consumed if the bowl is secretly rigged never to empty; even how we enjoy a meal more if we believe the wine we sip alongside it is expensive. These and other findings demonstrate what Wansink calls "mindless eating" -- which is the topic and title of his new book, Mindless Eating (Bantam). We pulled Wansink out of the lab and asked him to share his strategies for eating healthier for life.The #1 Reason We Eat Too Much
"We use external cues, like there's no more food left, rather than internal cues, like feeling full, to tell us it's time to stop eating. So we're out of sync with our bodies. But also these outside, visual cues aren't reliable. For example, if you're relying on what you see, how will you know how much you've eaten once your plate is empty? The answer is you won't -- and as a result, you'll eat more. In one study I did with chicken wings, people whose plates were regularly cleared ate an average of seven wings -- and remembered eating four or five. But people whose chicken bones piled up on the plate ate an average of five wings, or 30 percent less, and they were fairly accurate at estimating how many they'd eaten. This is one reason it's so dangerous for us to eat straight out of a bag or carton. If you see the food in a bowl or on a plate, you'll eat less."What Else Skews Our Calorie Count
"The bigger a meal, the less accurate our calorie estimation is. Most of us are fairly good at estimating how many calories are in a small meal. But with large meals, like at Thanksgiving, we tend to be off by 50 percent, I found. The takeaway here is that instead of looking at a huge burger and fries and chocolate shake and estimating the calories, you should estimate the calories of each individual item, then add them up."Where We Mess Up the Most
"There are five major areas where people tend to overindulge: at dinnertime, while snacking, at restaurants, at parties, and desktop or dashboard dining. The music, the number of dinner companions, how long we're sitting at the table -- all of these factors affect how much we'll eat. But generally, anything that takes our focus off the food makes us more likely to overeat. Before you throw in the towel, though, and decide that reining in your eating is a hopeless cause, you should know that in reality most people have a tendency to overeat in maybe only two of these five areas. In the other areas, they're pretty good."Why This Is a Very American Problem
"Many of us view food as a means to an end. We eat breakfast quickly so we can get to work, or we eat lunch so we won't be hungry. Unlike the French, for example, most of us don't see meals as a sensory experience, so we're not cued in to how the food tastes or how it makes us feel. This isn't true for every American, of course. Likewise, every Frenchman or woman isn't a foodie either. But generally the stereotype is right. When we did a study of Parisians, asking them when they decide during a meal to stop eating, they answered that they stopped when they were no longer hungry, the food no longer tasted good, or the food was cold. When we asked Chicagoans the same question, they said they finished when the TV show they were watching ended, when their friends were through, or when there was no more milk in their cereal bowl. In so many ways, we're eating on autopilot -- our food decisions are unconscious or invisible, like breathing. But hopefully, by becoming aware that we're making these decisions -- and what we're basing them on -- we can start making better eating choices."Our Biggest Blind Spot
"Size -- it matters a lot. In study after study, research shows that the larger the plate, the serving bowl, the packaged box, even the serving utensil, the more we'll eat. Our eye judges amounts by using contextual cues, so a helping of mashed potatoes on a 12-inch plate, for example, is going to look like less than it would on an 8-inch plate. If you think you're too smart to be fooled, though, you should know that food experts -- people who think about, research and publish studies on food -- can be tricked too. For a study, I invited professors at one of the three best nutritional science departments in the nation to an ice cream social, where they were given either a 17- or 34-ounce bowl and either a 2- or 3-ounce scoop. What happened? People who were given the bigger bowl took 31 percent more ice cream, and people who'd been given the bigger ice cream scoop took 15 percent more ice cream. This underlines what a difference it can make to change your environment. So: Mini-size your bowls and plates; replace short, wide glasses with tall, skinny ones; and repackage foods you buy in bulk into small servings."
Follow Wansink's advice by using these simple tricks.How to Reach Your Goal Weight Without Even Trying
"If you cut 100 to 200 calories a day, you'll lose 10 to 20 pounds a year. The great thing about this fact is that 100 to 200 calories is what I call the mindless margin. We found that people don't even notice if they eat that much less. They feel just as full. So one very easy way to cut those calories is to always serve yourself 20 percent less than you normally would. Generally, that's four or five fewer bites dished onto your plate."The Simple Trick for Eating More Veggies
"The more variety there is, the more we eat. This is true at salad bars, so it makes sense that at home, you'll eat more salad if you toss in more healthy, low-calorie things. Likewise, you'll probably eat more vegetables if you serve a medley of them, and not just, say, a plate of broccoli. Another trick is to keep the salad and vegetables on the table but leave the meat and starches on the stove. The more convenient a food is, the more we'll eat it; and the more hassle it is to get it, the less we'll eat."The Best Thing You Can Do for Yourself Today
"Think about your dieting weaknesses or danger zones, and come up with three food trade-offs or policies. For example, if ice cream is your downfall, make a pact with yourself that every time you eat a bowl, you have to walk two miles, or however far you would walk for a bowl. Or if you're not so great about eating fruit, don't allow yourself to eat anything until you've had one piece of fruit. The key is not to say, "I'll never eat ice cream again." Or, "I can eat only an apple for breakfast." For a diet to work, you've got to customize it to your eating tendencies. You've also got to be reasonable, which is why I suggest only three food trade-offs and policies. They're not too burdensome, and if you slip up with one, you've still followed two, which together add up to that 200-fewer-calories goal."Chew on This
"At the lab, we're surrounded by food all the time, and it's a fact that the more you think of a food, the more likely it is you'll eat it, and the more of it you'll eat. Our secret way to prevent constant snacking: Chew strong mint gum -- we like Dentyne Ice or Wrigley's Xtra. It's so overpowering that all other foods lose their appeal because nothing goes well with that flavor."
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, November 2006.