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Mindless Eating

Posted by tinako on August 3, 2010

I just finished reading Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink (after having listened to an interesting interview with him).  I don’t have the book in front of me any more, but it’s written by a scientist who studies how much we eat under different circumstances.  Most of each chapter tells about the interesting and entertaining experiments he has carried out.  The results will probably surprise you.  He ends each chapter with a couple of specific tips you could use to do an end run around the pitfall.

He positions the book as a diet book alternative.  I read the book for fun, but it is intended to help people lose weight and eat healthier.  The trick is that you only try to cut 100-200 calories per day, which keeps you from triggering starvation metabolism decreases.  Your body doesn’t realize you’re losing weight and so burns calories normally.

He says we easily eat hundreds of calories mindlessly every day, so the other trick is to change those situations so that we can continue to eat mindlessly, but we will mindlessly eat less.  Many of these are changes that you won’t even notice once they’re in place, like using smaller plates, leaving starch and protein serving bowls in the kitchen, and keeping unhealthy snacks out of sight.  I mean, you may notice the plate size or whatever, but you will not notice you are eating less because of it.  One of his main points is that we think we know when we are hungry, but in experiment after experiment we prove that we don’t have a clue.  People report feeling just as full after eating less, say from a smaller bag of popcorn, and they can be tricked into eating much more than usual and still not feeling full, say with a continually refilling bowl of soup.

You might ask, why not just become aware of the pitfalls and just don’t fall into them anymore?  Use our larger plates and just serve ourselves less?  The answer is that we are too busy thinking about other things, AND, they’ve proven that even people who understand the pitfalls keep falling into them.

So, he says, just pick three of the many 100-calorie-saving tips he offers that would seem to apply to your situation, and check them off each day on a calendar for a month.  You might not be perfect, but if you can average saving 200 calories per day, that’s 6,000 calories in a month, almost two pounds.  That might not seem like much, but it’s with barely trying, and presumably if you’re reading the book, it’s because your current deprivation diet isn’t working for you.

I very much disliked one chapter in the book, Chapter Nine, Fast Food.  In it he attacks the notion that anyone needs to change the overall national food environment.  I don’t think this is his area of expertise, he seems to take the food industry’s word for truth when I see great reason for skepticism, and I don’t see the point of this attack.  There’s no reason why we can’t change our personal food environment AND support changes in the national and international food environment at the same time.

For one example, he seems outraged that Subway offers healthy meals and advertises that fact.  He did an experiment in which he asked McDonald’s and Subway customers what they ordered and how many calories they think they ate.  Even though the McDonald’s customers ate way more calories than the Subway’s customers did, and both underestimated how much they ate, the Subway’s customers underestimated more because they thought they were getting a healthy sandwich as advertised, but then they put on mayo and got a drink and a refill and a cookie.  He even concludes the chapter with a rhetorical question implying the Subway’s customer overate more.  Um… but the McDonald’s customer ATE more, a LOT more.  And if they all had the same caloric needs for that meal, then McDonald’s customers overate more as well.  Their body doesn’t care whether they knew it or not.  Those calories still count.  The entire point of this book is to mindlessly eat less.  The Subway customers did that, even with refills and a cookie!  So why does he hate Subway??

For another example of his illogic in this chapter, he says that food companies don’t want us to be fat, they just want to sell us food – they don’t care if we throw it away or not.  Now, part of this could be construed to lead to his idea of throwing away part of the food instead of eating it – this would be a personal food environment habit.  But he didn’t make that connection, and it defies common sense to say that the food companies don’t intend us to eat the food.  They market it to be eaten – how could they convince us to buy more food just to throw it away?  Do ads show people walking from the counter with their bag and then happily throwing it in the trash?  Of course not – they depict people ecstatically masticating the burger.  They need us to want to eat the food in order to buy it.  They increase sales when they can make food so sweet and fat it’s irresistable, and they can convince us through ads to eat more than we should.  For them, more is better, with no real limit.  They may not particularly want us to be fat, but they certainly do not care if using their product causes it.

Food companies are not an evil empire, but let’s not get carried away that there aren’t problems.  This book overall is empowering, but we need to recognize that, just like using different plates and glasses,  there are things we can change in the larger food environment that can help people who don’t read this book mindlessly eat better, not in a Constitution-bashing pry-the-Twinkie-from-his-hand way, but in a Nudge-like would-you-like-an-apple? way. Usually that means eating less of food companies’ most profitable products.  But it also means less suffering and lower health care costs.  Should we bypass this option, this larger opportunity to help each other live healthier lives, just because food companies’ contributions to the obesity crisis are unintended by-products of the careless race to profits?

Anyway, apart from that, I thought this was a very good book.

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