Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, has been covertly watching people’s eating habits for the last 25 years. In an interview with Anna Maria Tremonte of CBC’s the current, available as a podcast, he argued that there are more effective ways to change people’s eating habits than dieting.
In his book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Decisions, he recommends changing your eating environment, not your mind.
We make 200 decisions about eating every day. Breakfast is about more than whether we have cereal or eggs. If we choose cereal, we choose which kind, how much, whether to add milk and how much, whether to finish the serving, and if so, whether to have seconds. If we set up the environment in such a way that we have fewer unhealthy options, we will eat better without much effort.
Wansink claims that we make decisions about eating in a limited number of places throughout the day, so it’s relatively easy to make changes that will drive us to make healthier choices.
A primary predictor of healthy or unhealthy weight is what food is out on the counter in the kitchen. People who keep chips or cookies on the counter, even a single cookie, weigh an average of ten pounds (4.5 kg) more, than their neighbors who don’t. When the cookies are in sight, you must repeatedly make a decision about eating them. You might resist 25 times, consider it on the 26th, and give in on the 27th. Cereal is even more enticing, according to Wansink, because we perceive it as healthier. If cereal is on the counter, you’re likely to weigh 20 pounds (9 kg) more than average.
Candy is only worth three pounds (1.5 kg) a year, perhaps because people keep up their guard. But keeping fruit on your counter can help you weigh eight pounds (3.5) less than average. Wansink recommends keeping a bowl of fruit within two feet (60 cm) of where you walk every day.
Choosing smaller plates, from 11-12 inches (28-30 cm) to 9-10-inch (22-25 cm) diameter, reduces the amount of food consumed by 22%. A 4-ounce (120 g) serving of pasta looks like an appetizer on a large plate.
You can reduce the number of refills by serving from the stove and not from the table. The need to stand up and refill makes you think twice, and reduces the quantity eaten by 20%. I give additional reasons for serving onto plates in this post: Individual Plates or Family Style? Comparison of Serving Styles.
Wansink has also studied restaurants, particularly Chinese buffets. He found that thin people act differently at buffets than overweight people. Strategies that thin people use, based on his observations, include walking around the entire buffet before filling your (small) plate, sit with your back to the buffet, and using chopsticks.
Schools and workplaces can also encourage healthy eating by making healthy choices more accessible and attractive.
I do keep fruit on my counter, and if I do buy cake or snacks, it stays in the cabinet or I will eat it. Do you think Wansink’s suggestions encourage healthy eating? Would you try them yourself?
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