Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (2006) by Brian Wansink explains how to start to lose weight without exerting much effort. Combining tips for dieters with overviews of food psychology experiments from his lab, Wansink explores which environmental cues are most likely to cause overeating.
The triggers that make people eat—and overeat—are so subtle that most don’t notice them. More than obvious factors like hunger or taste, people’s surroundings dictate their food choices. Factors such as the size of one’s dishes, the habits of other people in the household, and the packaging of a food impact what, and how much, one eats. To measure these variables, Wansink and his team at Cornell University established a lab with special sensors, hidden cameras, two-way mirrors, and other equipment that helped them observe diners in action. They also ran experiments in a faux restaurant, the Spice Box, and in real-world settings. They had to develop elaborate methodologies to record participants’ behaviors, including exactly how much food was ingested, because people tend to misjudge when they self-report. They frequently underestimate the volume of food they ate, for example, or how many calories the food contained.
In one study, Wansink served five-day-old popcorn in a real movie theater to observe if people would eat the tasteless, stale snack food just because it was there. They did. And then they underreported how much popcorn they consumed, not because they were lying, but because they were confused. Further, people who were given large popcorn containers tended to eat much more popcorn than people who were given the medium size. That’s because the size of a container signals how much of something one should eat.
The human brain isn’t designed to accurately track quantities of food. It’s not a natural impulse to count, say, the pieces of popcorn one eats. Satiety, or fullness, often registers late in a meal or snack, or even after the food has been consumed, and most eaters don’t consider whether or not they should continue eating after each bite of food. Instead, people depend on external signals to determine when to stop eating. In fact, most people are more aware of the volume of their food than the calories that the food contains.
An additional block to self-awareness around eating is that people gain or lose weight over extended periods of time, which makes it hard to recognize the behaviors that triggered the change. A person might notice when jeans feel too tight, but fail to perceive the slow but steady accumulation of extra weight over the course of a year, or 10 years.
Subtle changes to one’s environment are often easy to implement, and they can help cut calories. Simply storing high-calorie foods out of sight or, better, out of reach is often enough to prompt a healthier choice. No one likes to be inconvenienced, a preference that can lead to bad habits like eating too much fast food, but that can also be leveraged to promote good habits by making bad ones less convenient.
Change becomes possible when a dieter is aware of how psychological factors affect eating habits. Altering deeply held beliefs or modifying an entrenched habit is difficult, but optimizing one’s environment to promote better eating patterns is easy.
This report is based on the 2006 edition, which was published before Wansink’s methodology came into question and many of his papers were retracted.