Sunday, January 3, 2010

Mindless Eating

by Brian Wansink, PhD

This title, with its subtitle "Why We Eat More Than We Think" intrigued me, along with the cover quote that his "discoveries might very well change your life." 
  I picked it up on CD, to occupy my long commute time productively. However, as a veteran of Weight Watchers, I found that many of his "tricks" and ideas on how to take advantage of what he calls "the mindless margin" were nothing new. Serve your portion before you sit down to eat; put physical barriers between you and the tempting foods; never eat snack foods out of the bag; be mindful of the "portion size" on what might appear to be single serving bags/bottles (they're often 2 or 2 1/2 servings).

Much of the book outlined, some in great detail, the many studies he has designed and conducted throughout his career thus far, and I found these interesting. For example, his team rigged a "bottomless soup bowl," from which the test subjects could eat an unlimited amount and the level of soup in the bowl would not drop. Instead of recognizing that there was something "up" with the bowl, the subjects made comments such as the soup being "unusually filling." This demonstrated the human need to have visual or physical cues, as opposed to internal cues, that tell us when we are "full"--and hence, when to stop eating. A second study illustrative of this was a "chicken wing" experiment, where the subjects had unlimited chicken wings available; the subjects whose bone bowl was regularly emptied ate substantially more than the group whose chicken bones sat on the table and piled up.

Interestingly, Wansink also included his work on how to get people to eat more, and/or to enjoy the meals more--such as using descriptive, "fancy" names for food instead of unappetizing or plain names. Examples of this might be using "Mom's Homemade Apple Crisp" instead of just apple crisp, or the well-known "Chilean Sea Bass" instead of its former name, Patagonian toothfish. One point of these studies was that people report a more positive dining experience when they are led to believe that the food is better. As another example, he reported on his study which used the exact same complimentary wine with two different labels--one from a famous wine region, the other from a non-wine producing area--for two dining groups. After the meal, Wansick found that diners who had the famous label wine drank more of it and gave it much higher ratings than the other set.

I found this to be an interesting book generally, but it seemed a bit scattered. Wasnick throws research on a wide variety of theories from throughout his career into this book, and I found myself wondering how it fit together at times. What do we do with the information that men don't eat soy because it doesn't match their self images? Or that women and men tend to favor different types of comfort foods? (Men, old fashioned meals, women, foods without prep or clean-up involved.)

In retrospect, listening to this book was worth the time for the interesting anecdotes from Wansick's research, but as for any life changing diet and nutritional information, it fell short for me. For those unexposed to the concepts taught by Weight Watchers, there's a lot of new material here though, and I recommend it.


  1. I'm curious by the title. You'll have to let me know if the book is as good as its title.

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