Friday, October 25, 2013

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink

As Director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, Wansink has learned a great deal about how people eat. This book is mostly about the experiments he has conducted over the past two decades, plus he distills his findings into dietary suggestions. While How to Read a French Fry is about the science of food preparation, Mindless Eating is about the science of food consumption.

Most of the studies in this book have been published in professional or academic journals, so you may have heard about a few of them in the media:
  • Diners were given identical wine, some from bottles labeled as California wine and others labeled as North Dakota wine. Drinkers of "North Dakota" wine ate less food and left the restaurant sooner than the "California" wine drinkers.*
  • Tables were rigged with "bottomless" soup bowls that were secretly refilled via a tube in the bottom. Without the empty bowl as a cue, people ate a lot more soup.
  • Cafeteria diners sampled a free brownie touted as a potential new menu item. Whether it was served to them on a china dish, a paper plate, or a napkin influenced both the perceived quality of the brownie and how much diners were willing to pay for it (from $1.27 on a china dish to only 53¢ on a napkin).
  • In the experiment I found most amazing, they gave 32 people strawberry yogurt to eat in the dark. But actually it was chocolate yogurt. Regardless, 19 people—more than half—said it had a good strawberry taste!
Wansick's basic diet theory is that we eat a lot without really thinking about it, and if we learn to recognize those circumstances we can eliminate 100 calories per day without it really affecting our satiety. It's not the fastest weight-loss plan—100 calories a day works out to 10 pounds a year—but it doesn't involve any categorical restrictions (i.e., no desserts or no carbs) or gimmicks (like juice diets). Virtually anyone could implement at least a few of his ideas and probably stick to them.

I told my wife how he describes the household food shopper (me) as the nutritional gatekeeper. Her response was to go out to Jewel and buy a bag full of total crap—cake, candy bars, cookies, etc. <Sigh>.

Whether you are looking for ways to lose a few pounds or you want to learn more about the behavioral science of eating**, there is a lot of fascinating stuff in this book. Plus it's a quick and entertaining read. For more info, check out

* Hilariously, a woman from Fargo gave this book one star on Amazon (one of three one-star reviews versus 183 five-star reviews) because she felt Wansick was dissing North Dakota. Silly NoDaks!

** I bought it six years ago for the latter.

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