Have you ever found yourself saying, “I’m stuffed, but I still have room for dessert!” or “Why did I eat all those chips before dinner?” I know I have, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one. What is it that makes us eat despite our better judgment? In Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink, professor of Marketing and Nutritional Science at Cornell University, sets out to answer just that question.
Throughout Mindless Eating, Wansink provides examples of experiments he and his team have conducted to test the psychological aspects of people’s eating habits. Reading about the experiments was fascinating because it highlights the fact that most people don’t act rationally. It’s easy to chuckle at the participants’ poor decisions and think, “People can be so stupid. I would never mistake chocolate yogurt for strawberry if I ate it in the dark. I would never be fooled by a self-refilling bottomless soup bowl. I would never be duped into eating five-day-old stale movie popcorn.” And yet Wansink is quick to point out that we all make these kinds of poor decisions or judgments in one way or another. (And yes, all of the aforementioned examples actually happened. Read about them in the book.)
According to Wansink, how much we eat and when we eat is determined by scripts, cues and triggers that have become ingrained in us throughout our lifetimes. How many of us were taught to eat everything on our plates if we want dessert? What about the habit of sitting down in front of the TV with a big bowl of popcorn? Eating all your dinner or eating popcorn during a movie are not bad in themselves; it’s when we do them mindlessly that they can become bad. When we eat mindlessly, we’re more likely to overeat. How do we kick the mindless eating habit? Sheer willpower, as most of us can attest, is futile in causing behavioral change. The key, in Wansink’s opinion, is reengineering small behaviors. In other words, replacing bad habits with good habits. And doing that takes baby steps.
Before we get into the baby steps, there’s another key principle in Mindless Eating that you should know about. It’s called The Mindless Margin. This principle asserts that we can eat 20% more or less than we normally eat and we won’t feel any different. If we eat 25% less, we’ll feel hungry; if we eat 25% more, we’ll feel stuffed. The takeaway: exploit—in a good way—The Mindless Margin. Eat 100 or 200 fewer calories per day and your body won’t even miss it. Over several months those missing calories will result in pounds lost. All other things being equal, eating 100 fewer calories per day will result in 10 pounds weight loss. How’s that for easy weight loss?
Back to the baby steps. At the end of each chapter in Mindless Eating, Wansink offers practical advice to combat the scripts and cues that cause us to eat. My favorite action items—food trade-offs and food policies—are from the last chapter.
In Wansink’s words, “Food trade-offs state, ‘I can eat x if I do y.’ For example, I can eat dessert if I’ve worked out; I can have chips if I don’t have a morning snack; I can have movie popcorn if I only have a salad for dinner; I can have a second soft drink if I use the stairs all day” (p 212). Wansink put a name to a principle I’ve found effective in my own daily routine. For example, if I know I’m going out to dinner in the evening, I’ll have a salad for lunch. If I haven’t worked out, I’ll skip the La Boulange pastry.
The second tip for developing good eating habits is to instate personal food policies. Wansink lists the following examples of food policies: “serve myself 20 percent less than I usually would; no second helpings of any starch; never eat at my desk; only eat snacks that don’t come in wrappers; no bagels on weekdays; only half-size desserts” (p 213). The key to these policies is that they’re pretty small and therefore not too hard to turn into habits. Some food policies I’d like to implement include only eating at the dining table, not reading or surfing the web while eating and portioning out snacks into a little dish so I can keep track of how much I’ve eaten.
All right, you may be thinking, “This is all well and good, Andrea, but it sounds like a bunch of observation and theoretical stuff. Does it actually work? Has anyone actually done this?” Looking back on my personal experience, I would say yes, it does work. Throughout my college years I, like so many college students, gained weight. But for me it wasn’t the usual Freshman Fifteen culprits—pizza and beer—that slowly filled out my figure; it was the all-you-eat style cafeteria. Thanks to the variety of food and cafeteria trays that could hold several plates, bowls and cups, I’d fill up my tray with more food than I would’ve eaten at home. (Mind you, I was very good about eating my veggies.) After graduating from college, I returned to more normal portion sizes, fewer dinner choices and regular exercise. I wasn’t trying to lose weight, but by the following Christmas I had slimmed down quite a bit. In fact, I was even in denial about having extra pounds to shed. I didn’t make any drastic changes and I didn’t deprive myself of the sweets I love so much. Looking back, all I can attribute my weight loss to is portion control and regular exercise. As Wansink writes, “the best diet is one you don’t know you’re on.” Here, here.
Should you read The Mindless Margin? Absolutely. First, the book is filled with interesting case studies exploring human behavior, and second, I think anyone could benefit from understanding why we eat the way we do. In this review I’ve only scratched the surface of the tips for developing better eating habits. Even if you gain only one new insight from reading the book—and I think you’ll gain more than that—it just might be the tip that breaks the mindless eating cycle and sets you on the path to better eating habits.
Please note: I was not compensated in any way or asked to write this review. All thoughts and opinions are my own.