Insightful book explores society’s passion for eating

At the dawn of every New Year comes the desire to reform behaviour. And at or near the top of many lists of resolutions is the goal of losing weight.

It’s been at or near the top of my list for years, and yet I never, ever seem to be able to lose it. Or if I am successful in dropping weight, I fail to keep it off and then manage to gain a few additional pounds for good measure. It’s a vicious, depressing cycle and a subject I get tired of struggling with and thinking about.

But about two weeks ago, a friend lent me a book called Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, who is the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab in Ithaca, New York.

The gist of Mindless Eating is that most of us don’t overeat because we’re hungry.

“We overeat because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers,” writes Wansink. “Our studies show that the average person makes around 250 decisions about food every day – breakfast or no breakfast? Pop-tart or bagel? Part of it or all of it? Kitchen or car? Yet out of these 200-plus food decisions, most we cannot really explain.”

Everything from the size of plates, the size of food packages we purchase to the variety of food placed before us all impact how much we eat. Put out large bowls of snacks at a party and people will likely take more out of them to eat. A serving of food looks so tiny on a big plate – better fill it up with more to make it look like we are getting enough.

Wansink said there are times we munch away simply because something is given to us for free – for example, free popcorn at a movie theatre that was stale (unbeknownst to moviegoers). Yet they ate it, and the bigger the bag given to them, the more they ate.

Another fascinating experiment had to do with soup. An experiment was arranged where two people at a table were given a simple bowl of tomato soup. The other two people were served soup in a bowl that had a tiny tube attached to the bottom where more soup was added to the bowl as the meal unfolded.

Guess who ate more?

At the end of the experiment, most of the folks with the added soup insisted they didn’t feel more full – even though they ate 73% more than the others.

“People eating out of the bottomless bowls ate and ate and ate. Most were still eating when we stopped them…the typical person ate around 15 ounces, but others ate more than a quart.”

One man commented that the soup was good, but it was pretty filling.

“Of course it was. He had eaten almost three times as much as the guy sitting next to him.”

Wansink points to a famous book that came out a few years back called Why French Women Don’t Get Fat, when they eat all kinds of fattening, delicious French foods. They reported that they stop eating when they stop feeling hungry.

The same question was asked of diners in Chicago, and not feeling hungry had little to do with it. “They stopped when they ran out of a beverage, or when their plate was empty, or when the television show they were watching was over.”

So the question is, why do we eat when we are not hungry? And why do we eat at times stale, low quality food when we aren’t even hungry?

It’s all mindless eating, and a reliance on using external cues to tell us enough is enough then simply listening to our bodies.

By really considering our food choices and amounts we consume, we can make significant differences to our health and our waistlines.

It doesn’t take much to really make a difference, although of course it may not happen overnight. People need to be happy to see gradual changes as their perspectives on food change.

After all, as Wansink points out, the best kind of diet is the one you don’t even realize you are on.