Most people are in denial about mindless eating: it’s what other people do, not us. After all, why on earth would movie-goers continue eating a bucket of popcorn even after realizing it was stale? How could a secretly relabeled bottle of wine influence our perception of the quality of the meal being served with it? Why would our consumption of M&Ms depend on how many colors were offered to us?
Dr. Brian Wansink, a food psychologist based at Cornell University, tells us that we make around 200 food-related decisions each day, most of which are subconscious, and few of which are related to how hungry we are. Like it or not, we’re both gullible and suggestible when it comes to food. Wansink reveals many of the hidden tricks and gimmicks that encourage us to continue eating long after we’re full. These include lighting, smells, labeling, packaging, the number of people we eat with, and the color and variety of foods on offer.
Through numerous tests and studies—often conducted in labs fronting as restaurants, and using hidden cameras, two-way mirrors, auto-refilling bowls and other chicanery, Wansink proves that we are poor judges of how much we eat. His entertainingly described bottomless soup-bowl experiment—where bowls were slowly and imperceptibly refilled with soup, fooling people into consuming larger quantities than they thought—is proof that we trust our eyes more than our stomach when it comes to figuring out how much to eat.
Overeating and The Mindless Margin
We also too readily accept the notion that one unit of something is the same as one serving. After all, how many people bother to split their 20-ounce bottle of cola into the stated two and a half servings, or eat only half of their oversized store-bought muffin? We’re also guilty of falling for a particular health claim and overeating because of it. Low-fat cookies come to mind: they’re often not much lower in calories, and sometimes much higher in sugar and sodium. Beware, too, the “Subway effect,” where eating at a restaurant that offers healthier menu items makes people feel they’re eating fewer calories—even if they choose a hefty meatball sandwich.
But there’s hope. Wansink reminds us that we don’t go to bed skinny and wake up fat. Most weight gain is gradual: the extra 100 or 200 calories here and there that slowly add up to extra pounds from year to year. This is what Wansink calls the mindless margin. And while it’s alarming to read that eating a mere three jelly beans a day can make you a pound heavier one year from now, the margin is where we can most easily change our eating habits—where we can switch from mindless to mindful eating.
For weight loss, Wansink suggests making three 100-calorie changes per day to lose 30 pounds over a year. And because even small behavioral changes take time to establish—about one month—Wansink suggests keeping a written record of these 100-calorie changes until you no longer notice them.
Mindless Eating is full of strategies to change our relationship with food, encouraging us to develop positive associations with healthier foods instead of our usual comfort foods. We should make overeating more trouble than it’s worth by keeping snacks out of sight or arm’s reach, or covering leftover food in foil rather than clear plastic wrap, and pushing it to the back of the refrigerator.
Such strategies may not always prevent us from getting at the cookie jar, but Mindless Eating certainly gives us pause. It helps identify our weak spots and illustrates how far removed our eating habits often are from our appetites.
Published by Bantam Books, A Division of Random House.