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New Tricks for Eating Better and Less

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Eat better without struggling, cursing, or rationalizing, all from the genius researcher who wrote Mindless Eating.

Get the Facts

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."

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3/4/2012 03:22:31 AM Report Abuse

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