Upon searching for research for my last article about the social aspects of eating, I stumbled upon a book with a very intriguing title. It’s called “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think“, and is written by a nutritional scientist by the name of Brian Wansink. He studies the psychology of eating, and has spent his career trying to understand the hidden cues that determine what and how much we eat.
It seemed like an intriguing concept: studying the little changes that make us “mindlessly” eat. And at under 300 pages, it is a quick easy read. It promised to show “why you may nor realize how much you’re eating, what you’re eating – or why you’re even eating at all” – a tall order for a short, pop-psych book. I figured if it even half delivered on that promise, it would be an interesting read, so I sat down and dove in. Here’s my thoughts on the book.
One Word: Whoa
This book is simply great. Amazon.com readers have given it the stellar rating of 4 1/2 stars, and I agree. It’s easy to read, completely intelligible, yet delves into the hard science behind psychological nutrition studies. I’m extremely impressed with how fluidly the author explains the science and the meaning of it. You don’t have to have a PhD to understand the research that has been done and what it found. And that’s a good thing, considering how unique and mindblowing the research is that he talks about.
Does food with a brand name taste better? Yes, actually. Does the size of your plate change how much you eat? Um, yeah, it does. Do you change how you eat based on how others eat? Yep. Do you presume that there’s no way you fall into the same silly traps as everyone else? Yes, and yet you do.
The key point that Wansink makes, in my opinion, is that no matter how smart you are, how much you think about food, or how carefully you think you make your decisions – you, too, mindlessly eat. We might acknowledge that others could be tricked, but not us. That is what makes mindless eating so dangerous. We are almost never aware that it is happening to us,” Wansink writes. He’s done studies using students who have just taken a 90 minute class on the subject, intelligent groups of people, experts in a particular profession, and even the very scientists who do the research themselves! All of them mindlessly eat and drink. No one is immune to these small, pervasive influences.
However, that’s no reason to get all upset. Sure, give us a short, wide glass and we’ll drink more than if given a tall skinny one. We’ll eat more from a big package than a little one. But that means you have a way of changing your diet and your eating and drinking habits – just get taller glasses and eat from smaller packages. Throughout the book he gives simple tips that, if followed, allow you to eat and drink 100 less calories a day. 100 calories. That’s it. While it seems slight, it’s what he calls the ‘mindless margin’ - the amount you won’t notice you’re not eating.
Food For Thought
As I’ve told you before, your body reacts strongly to what it thinks is starvation – aka a sudden drop in food intake. It doesn’t really matter if you were eating too much before anyhow, your body freaks out and fights against our attempts at weight loss. I’ve warned of the physiological side effects of serious calorie cutting and crash dieting. It’s no surprise that Wansink, too, berates this behavior. The key to successful weight maintenance, he claims, is instead to shed pounds slowly by seemingly not changing a thing. To mindlessly lose weight instead of mindlessly gain it.
And it makes sense, too. If you cut 100-200 calories out a day you’ll be able to drop about a pound a month without even trying. You’ll get slimmer without feeling deprived or frustrated. He suggests picking 3 changes and trying them for one month, tracking daily how you do. You don’t have to be perfect, but the daily, written reminder will help you get on track and follow your goals. After all, it only takes a month to change a habit – 28 days, according to scientists. So if you can make it the first month you’re much more likely to be able to continue it past that.
Just imagine how great you would feel if you do that and eat a little healthier, too.
I think that just about everyone I know can benefit from reading this book. As Wansink writes:
“We may not be able to outlaw every drive-through restaurant or tax every pint of ice cream in our community, but we can re-engineer our personal food environment to help us and our families eat better.” While we may not be able to change all of the ways we mindlessly eat, we can change a few of them, and that’s enough to have a marked impact on our day to day lives. And in doing that, “we turn the food in our life from being a temptation or a regret to something we guiltlessly enjoy.”
After all, as Wansink concludes, “The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.” I agree.