Why are you eating that?
'Unconscious' eating is the cause of weight gain, according to a US food psychologist. We need to think more about what we eat – but not go on a diet. Angelina Villa-Clarke reports.
How many among us have dipped into the Maltesers too many times while riveted to our favourite TV show? Or reached for biscuit tin while reading the paper? Many of us snack to our hearts content – perhaps at a work function while talking animatedly to Joan from accounts – blissfully unaware of how much we have actually consumed over the course of a day, unknowingly piling on the pounds.
Dr Brian Wansink, food psychologist at Cornell University, has spent the last 25 years researching the very topic of the unthinking ways in which we eat, and in his book Mindless Eating, claims that we put on weight not because of what we eat but because of the ways in which we eat. If we all became 'conscious’ eaters, he claims, we can effectively control weight gain.
“We overeat not because of hunger but because of so many external factors that influence how much we eat, which we are unaware of”, he says. “We may be chatting to our friends at a dinner party while eating away or pick up a particularly attractive chocolate bar which we don’t really want. We make around 200 decisions about food each day and we don’t really know that we are doing it.
“Breakfast at home or on the go? Chicken or beef? Two handfuls of candy or three? Snapshot thoughts that are throwaway. I want to show people that our tastes are not formed by chance. Once we know that, we can make small changes and actually enjoy food more. It occurred to me that if we could be in control of our food decisions, we could eat a little less and eat a little healthier.”
Having grown up in America’s food-farm belt of Iowa, as a child Wansink used to sell vegetables door to door from his uncle’s farm. “I think my curiosity about the subject was ignited then,” he remembers. “I kept wondering why one person would buy a box of corn and the next door neighbour wouldn’t… it wasn’t just down to taste but something more.”
Fast forward to present day and Wansink is now a noted food academic in the States. Having founded the Food and Brand Lab in 1997, he has conducted over 250 studies and made over 200 research presentations to governments, culinary institutes and universities across the world and was a member of the panel advising the US government on 2010 dietary guidelines. “After 25 years of research, I still find it remarkable that you can take the smartest person and they won’t know why they eat what they eat or why they choose a particular dish from a menu instead of another.”
So how do we get to grips with ourselves, one might ask? In the book he identifies five different types of eaters: the Meal Stuffer is someone that eats primarily during meal times but to excess; the Snack Grazer who reaches for food out of habit throughout the day; the Party Binger who overdoes it in a social setting; the Restaurant Indulger who eats out a lot and the Desktop Diner who eats while doing another task.
“It depends what camp you fall in,” Wansink says. “When you have identified that, you can then control your environment so we mindlessly eat less. So a good tip for a Meal Stuffer would be to use a smaller plate – it should be less than 10 inches but more than 9.25 inches. You’ll serve yourself 22 per cent less but won’t realise it. The Restaurant Indulger, for example, should have a rule that they can only order two additional items with their meal – be it a drink and dessert, for example, or perhaps one side order and drink. It’s about giving ourselves natural governors – natural stopping points.”
Wansink’s book is full of handy tips such as these. It could be argued, of course, that surely this is all common sense – but his breakthrough argument is the fact that if we eat too little or too much, we know about it – we feel it physically. But crucially there is an amount – what he calls the 'mindless margin’ – of between 200-300kcals a day that we are unaware of consuming. Over the course of a year, this could amount to a weight gain of 10 pounds. His weight-loss theory revolves around squeezing the mindless margin.
Marion Hetherington, Professor of Biopsychology, at the Institute of Psychological Sciences at University of Leeds, has done similar research and agrees with Wansink: “We carried out our own research to examine the impact of 'mindful’ eating. Thinking about the pleasantness of the taste or smell of food, for example, can enhance the rate at which satiation occurs and can reduce snack or meal intake. In contrast, eating in the presence of distractions such as the television or when talking with family produces eating which is mindless and during which less time is spent focusing on the food and more is eaten.
“Clearly, if consumers habitually graze or eat when doing other tasks, this can interfere with the normal processes of hunger and satiation, which in turn can contribute to overeating.”
So will eating in silence really do the trick? “It’s more about adapting your environment,” Wansink says. “Don’t have tempting things in the house but don’t deprive yourselves either. My philosophy is to re engineer your surroundings so that you can eat what you want without guilt, and without gaining weight. It’s much easier to reduce the attractiveness of temptation – buy the small packet of crisps, for instance, and not the largest one in the supermarket. Move the biscuit tin to a hard-to-reach place, you’ll think twice about getting it.”
The one thing that Wansink is adamant about is dieting. “I don’t agree with diets. For most people, they simply don’t work– research has shown that the average diet lasts just one week. It’s because they are based on depravation. And we humans do not like to give things up. Obesity in the West is largely to do with the availability and affordability of food. Fifty years ago, the typical American family spent 24 per cent of their budget on food, now it is just six per cent. We can afford to buy so much more now. Back then a chocolate bar was a real treat, something you saved up for. Now, it can easily be a daily indulgence.”
Wansink’s is a refreshing take on the idea of cutting down, of portion control, mindful eating – dieting with no dodgy soups in sight. In fact, he is a great advocate of loving good cuisine. So why has he been nicknamed the Sherlock Holmes of Food? “I think it came about because people have always believed there are obvious answers to why we overeat. I show that the real answers are environmental cues that we can control. But if we don’t know about them we end up blaming the wrong things. If you remember Holmes always had a simple answer but one that wasn’t obvious.”