You might not know it, but food psychologist Brian Wansink has probably already influenced the way that you eat. Although some of his views differ radically from conventional nutrition advice, his perspective could become the new gospel for those struggling to lose weight or maintain weight they’ve lost.
Wansink, who directs Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab, studies how our physical environment impacts what and how we eat. He’s published several books, including Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, and was the lead author of more than 120 studies published in the last decade whose findings have led to paradigm shifts in the way we serve, consume, and market food. For example, his work has contributed to the use of taller, thinner glasses in some bars, the widely dispensed advice to eat off smaller plates, and the creation of 100-calorie snack packs.
A recent Mother Jones article detailed the uncommon wisdom of Wansink’s approach to food consumption, a sort of antithesis to the reduction and cold-turkey approaches of trading “unhealthy” foods for “healthy” ones. These approaches often neglect to address the deeply rooted emotional and environmental factors that complicate weight-loss efforts.
So instead of swimming upstream, Wansink adapts to his surroundings. He goes with the flow.
The author of the article describes Wansink as: “…not overweight in the slightest, nor is he remarkably fit. He exercises on occasion and tries ‘not to eat anything too awful,’ but he doesn’t diet.” The two go to lunch at Applebee’s. The author dutifully ordered a chicken salad while Wansink chose a wedge salad topped with bacon and ranch dressing, French onion soup and sliders.
“If you tell people to be mindful of what they order, they don’t like it as much and they make up for it later,” he explained to the author. “They tell themselves they deserve ice cream since they virtuously ate a salad for dinner.”
He didn’t finish everything. Satisfied with the salad, soup and one tiny cheeseburger, he took the rest to go.
Wansink believes that if we want to make eating better a lifestyle, we need to trick our brains into making the right choices. Even the smallest things, such as where you store your cereal (Wansink believes you’ll eat less of it if you store it out of sight in a pantry or cupboard instead of on the kitchen counter) and where you start grocery shopping (linger in the produce aisle first for at least 10 minutes; you’ll buy more fruits and veggies) can make huge impacts.
“It’s a lot easier for us to set up our most immediate environment so that it’s easier to eat better,” Wansink told the author.
For example, when serving healthier food to your family, don’t neglect the power of presentation. Wansink’s research on children’s eating habits revealed that serving kids fruit in colorful bowls instead of metal trays more than doubled consumption. Even seemingly insignificant details like giving kids sliced apples instead of the whole fruit, and calling carrots “X-Ray-Vision Carrots” instead of just “carrots” persuaded children to eat more produce.
And if shortcuts help you eat better at home, pay up for them and don’t feel guilty about it. Wansink buys bagged salad when he’s alone with the kids and needs to get dinner ready because it takes three steps out of the preparation process. If the choice is to serve greens out of a bag or omit the salad altogether from the meal, Wansink opts for the convenience of packaged salad.
Remember, it’s all about creating an environment that’s hospitable to healthier eating.
In addition to keeping the kitchen counters uncluttered by food, Wansink’s research has revealed:
- People who get their food from the stovetop rather than from plates on the dining table ate 19 percent less.
- If you set a glass on a table when you pour instead of holding it, you’ll pour 12 percent less.
- Where you sit in a restaurant matters: Those dining at high-tops were less likely to order fried food, and those sitting farther from the entrance were 73 percent less likely to order dessert.
- If you chew mint-flavored gum while grocery shopping, you’ll buy 7 percent less junk food.
Here are some ways the folks at MyFitnessPal make their environments more conducive to making better food choices:
- Use a (small) plate instead of a big bowl to keep your eyes on portion size.
- Eat at a table, away from screens, and take time to enjoy what you’re eating.
- Put washed fruits and vegetables in the most visible part of your refrigerator so it’s the first thing you see when you open the door.
- Keep healthy leftovers in glass containers at eye level in the fridge so you’ll be more likely to see and reach for them when you’re hungry.
- Don’t keep foods you tend to overeat, like ice cream, in the house. Instead, get a scoop at an ice cream shop every once in a while.
What are some ways you’ve changed your surroundings in an effort to eat better? Share your comments below.