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Why We Eat More Than We Think
I tell people almost every day to take their time losing weight—because that’s the only way most people will be successful. I tell them not to bite off more than they can chew, because the only diet and exercise plan that will work is one you’re willing and able to stick with. My sense is that many don’t listen, at least initially. They’re in a hurry to slim down—and soon relapse and regain the weight they lost and often more.
The best plan is to reduce calorie intake slightly and increase activity level slightly. Do it correctly, and you won’t notice--but your fat cells will. Food psychologist Brian Wansink has confirmed this many times in many ways in his Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. In his insightful book Mindless Eating (Bantam, October 2006), he writes: “The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.”
His innovative research rings true.
The Mindless Margin
Few of us get fat fast. We get fat very slowly. (Fat Loss Mother Nature’s Way, # 13 in our Fat Loss & Weight Control category) “Most people gain (or lose) weight so gradually that they can’t really figure out how it happened,” Professor Wansink relates. “All they remember is once being able to fit into their favorite pants without having to hold their breath and hope they can get the zipper to budge.”
Wansink calls this the mindless margin. “It’s the margin or zone in which we can either slightly overeat or slightly undereat without being aware of it.” This is where most of us gain weight and – ideally - where we can lose weight easily and permanently.
“If we eat way too little, we know it. If we eat way too much we know it,” he explains. That’s true, isn’t it? “But there is a calorie range – a mindless margin – where we feel fine and are unaware of small differences.” It’s roughly 100 calories over or under calorie equilibrium. Doesn’t sound like much, but Wansink says, “Over the course of a year, this mindless margin would either cause us to lose ten pounds or to gain ten pounds.” That’s because it takes 3500 extra calories to equal one pound. (Up your activity level by 100 calories and you’ll double the loss.)
If we eat 1,000 calories less we feel deprived, and if we eat 1,000 calories more we feel stuffed. Both are uncomfortable—and as a practical matter unsustainable. But 100-200 calories more or less goes unnoticed—and for most people it’s the difference between weight gain or loss.
Stale Popcorn Overcomes
Professor Wansink and his graduate students have illustrated mindless eating using something to which we can all relate: movie popcorn. They gave every person who bought a ticket to a suburban Chicago movie theater a free soft drink and either a medium-size bucket of popcorn or a large-size, “bigger-than-your-head” bucket. All they asked in return was that they answer a few questions after the movie.
Both buckets were actually too big for anyone to finish all the popcorn. Plus, many of the theater patrons had just eaten lunch. Moreover, the popcorn was stale. The popcorn was safe to eat,” Wansink writes, “but it was stale enough one movie-goer said it was like eating Styrofoam peanuts.” That didn’t stop anyone from eating it, of course. “During the movie, people would eat a couple of bites, put the bucket down, pick it up again a few minutes later, and continue. It might not have been good enough to eat all at once, but they couldn’t leave it alone.” (Sound familiar?)
As each person’s leftover popcorn was being collected after the movie, they were told: “Some people tonight were given medium-size buckets of popcorn, and others, like yourself, were given these large-size buckets. We have found that the average person who is given a large-size container eats more than if they are given a medium-size container. Do you think you ate more because you had the larger size?”
“Most disagreed.” Many added smug comments, such as, “Things like that don’t trick me,” or “I’m pretty good at knowing when I’m full.”
As you probably guessed, what they believed is not what happened.
“Weighing the buckets told us that the big-bucket group ate an average of 173 more calories of popcorn,” Wansink reports. ”People who were given big buckets ate an average of 53 percent more than those given medium-size buckets. Give them a lot, and they eat a lot.”
Wansink and his colleagues have repeated the popcorn study in Pennsylvania, Illinois, Iowa and elsewhere—always with the same result. Most people eat mindlessly, based on the size of the container and other cues—not the taste of the popcorn or how hungry or full they are. Within limits, most people don’t pay attention to how much they eat.
“Does this mean we can avoid mindless eating simply by replacing large bowls with smaller bowls?” Wansink asks. Yes, that can certainly help. Let me tell you how that worked for me several weeks ago, before I started reading the Professor’s book.
I’ve begun thinking about having photos taken over the course of the next year, as I approach 70. My weight is stable, but I need to take off a few pounds to be photo ready. I’ve done this many times and never rush the process. I monitor my weight and body fat weekly on my Tanita scale (see FAQ 6, item 3) and cut back slightly on my food intake as I zero in on peak condition. I eat regular meals and never let myself get hungry. As I say above, I want my fat cells to notice but not me. One of the adjustments I’ve made involves popcorn.
When Carol and I go to a movie (we go frequently), I usually have a small diet drink and a small popcorn, without butter. (Frankly, I don’t remember ever buying a large bucket of popcorn.) I also have a Tiger’s Milk energy bar with the popcorn; Carol and I jokingly call it my candy bar. (It really is good with popcorn.) I have a few kernels of popcorn and a small bite of Tiger’s Milk. It’s a tasty combination--and has a fraction of the calories of buttered popcorn and a regular candy bar. I’ve never figured out the exact calorie difference, but it’s a bunch. More importantly, I enjoy every bite and don’t feel a bit deprived.
In fact, Carol noticed that I often leave some of the popcorn; when I finish the Tiger’s Milk, I usually stop eating the popcorn. Knowing that I’m getting ready for photos, she suggested that I try a junior-size popcorn. After resisting for a few weeks--it's such a dinky looking little container--I gave in and ordered the junior-size popcorn. Happily, I’ve found that it satisfies me just fine. I didn’t know at the time that I was taking a leaf out of Professor Wansink’s book, but I can tell you that it works. The small calorie reduction (I haven’t calculated the exact number) makes no difference in my eating satisfaction. That change, along with some other small adjustments on a daily basis, are already registering in the mirror and in my weekly Tanita body-fat readings.
Walk a Mile for a Chocolate?
Another brilliant study by Professor Wansink and his colleagues involves desk-bound secretaries and chocolates. The study is simple, but the lesson is powerful for anyone trying to become a mindful eater. Wansink sums it up in one sentence: The more hassle it is to eat, the less we eat.
Each secretary was given a dish of candy that was rotated among three locations. During the first week the candy dish was placed on the corner of her desk. The next week it was in the top-left-hand desk drawer. And the last week the candy was on a filing cabinet six feet from her desk. Other secretaries were given their chocolates in a different order, but the three locations were the same—on the desk, in the desk, and six feet from the desk.
You can guess what happened, but you might miss a key point with broad implications. The secretaries ate nine chocolates a day when they were on the desk looking her in the face--about 225 extra calories. If she had to open the desk, she ate six a day. If she had to get up and walk six feet to get the chocolate, only four.
“The basic principle is convenience,” Wansink writes. But there’s something else going on that may be of equal or greater importance. “When we talked to the secretaries after the study, many of them mentioned that having six feet between them and the candy gave them enough time to think twice whether they really wanted it. It gave them time to talk themselves out of having another chocolate.”
I can tell you from years of personal experience that having time to think about whether you want more food makes a tremendous difference. It has saved me from eating countless thousands of calories I didn’t really want. In my book Challenge Yourself, I called it “Calorie Saver Rule #1.”
The only food I put on the table is the food I plan to eat. That’s it. I plan my meals and snacks. I know what I’m going to eat. I put everything else away before I sit down to eat. If extra food is sitting in front of me, I’ll probably eat it. If, however, I have to think about it and get up from the table to get more food, I usually won’t do it. I realize that my true hunger has been satisfied. If I really want more food, I have it, so I don’t feel deprived. I know that if I feel dissatisfied at the end of a meal, I’m likely to pick between meals or overeat at the next meal.
I can tell you with absolute candor that I almost never want more food enough to get up and get more. Like Wansink’s secretaries, pausing to think makes me realize that I really don’t want more food; I’m satisfied.
Professor Wansink says knowing that you are likely to eat food that you can see or reach can be turned around for salad and veggies, nutritious foods that fill us up without providing too many calories. “Make sure they’re planted in the pick me spot in the middle of the table,” he suggests.
Big Bowls Are Big Trouble
Our serving-size habits are set very early in life, according to Professor Wansink. “You can give three-year-olds a lot of food, and they will simply eat until they are no longer hungry,” he writes. “They are unaffected by serving size. By age five, however, they will pretty much eat whatever they’re given. If they are given a lot, they’ll eat a lot.”
“Almost exactly the same thing happens to adults,” Wansink explains. “We let serving size influence how much we eat.” Needless to say, that’s a problem for adults whose habits are set, which includes just about all of us. Simply being aware of the problem suggests the solution: Pay attention to eating utensils and serving size.
Wansink says habits are hard to change; it’s easier to change your environment. Down-sizing popcorn and putting away food you don’t plan to eat are two examples. Using small spoons, bowls, and plates are others. Anything that slows the pace of eating and allows time for reflection is a step in the right direction.
In eating, perception tends to be reality. “If you spoon four ounces of mashed potatoes onto a 12-inch plate, it will look like a lot less than if you spooned it onto an 8-inch plate,” Wansink writes. “Even if you intended to limit your portion size, the larger plate would likely influence you to serve more. And since we all tend to finish what we serve ourselves, we would probably end up eating it all.”
Dr. Wansink tested this proposition using the TV show 20/20 when it came to film in his food lab. “To celebrate what was supposed to be the end of the filming—the wrap party—there was an ice-cream social. All the distinguished professors from the Nutrition Science Division and all the hardworking Ph.D. students were invited to share in the celebration,” Wansink relates with obvious amusement. The wrap party was actually an experiment. The camera were still rolling.
The guests were given either medium-size (17-ounce) bowls or large-size (34-ounce) bowls, and then invited to serve themselves as much of four different kinds of ice cream as they wanted. The size of the scoops in the ice cream was also varied; some held two ounces and some three ounces. When people reached the end of the line, their bowl of ice cream was weighed.
These people were nutrition pros; surely they wouldn’t be affected by the size of bowls and scoops. “They think, sleep, lecture, study, and eat nutrition,” Wansink relates. “They’ve written hundreds of top-level research papers on nutrition.”
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, it didn’t make any difference. “Those who were given the huge bowls dished out huge amounts,” Wansink reports. “In fact, they dished about 31 percent more—127 more calories’ worth of ice cream.” Giving them a big scoop made matters worse. “People with a large bowl and a three-ounce scoop dished out 57 percent more ice cream than those given a small bowl and smaller scoop.”
“Big dishes and big spoons are big trouble,” Wansink concludes.
Carol and I practice what Professor Wansink teaches when we eat out. We both have a big salad, and then split a main course and sometimes a dessert. The first person I ever saw do this was Ben Weider, about 20 years ago. It was after a professional bodybuilding contest, where I served as a judge. I believe it was in Atlantic City. Boyer Coe won. I was part of a large after-show diner party. Ben split the main course with his administrative assistant, whose name escapes me. Boyer and I didn’t share with anyone. We both cleaned our plate and had a big dessert; as I recall, he had two desserts. Why not? He won.
I never forgot what Ben did; the seed was planted in my mind.
Carol finally prodded me into action. In the last year or so, we’ve almost always split the main course when eating out. Actually, it makes eating out more enjoyable, because I don’t have concerns about overeating. I don’t feel like I’m missing a thing. I leave the restaurant feeling satisfied, but not stuffed.
The Power of Three
As noted above, for long-term success it’s important not to bite off more than you are willing and able to chew. Brian Wansink suggests making three 100-calorie changes in your daily food routine. Why only three?
“Most diets fail because they ask us to do too much,” he states. “Three small changes is reasonable. If we make three small, 100-calorie changes, by the end of the year we’ll be as much as 30 pounds lighter than if we didn’t make them.”
So simple, and so powerful—and it works. I have told you about three changes that work for me.
Now it’s time for you to come up with three changes that fit your personality and circumstances. Remember that even one small change can make you 10 pounds lighter over the course of a year. Perhaps one of my changes appeals to you. Fine, try it for a while; Wansink says it takes about 28 days to break an old habit and replace it with a good one. Weigh yourself once a week and keep a record. Chances are you’ll see meaningful results in a month. That will encourage you to make another small change. You’ll be on the path to permanent leanness before you know it.
Dr Wansink ends every chapter in Mindless Eating with “Reengineering Strategies” for you to turn into “mindless positive eating habits.” My guess is that you’ll find quite a few that you can put to good use. You’ll be glad you did.
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