‘Being Well’ talk on Mindless Eating

Christine Tenekjian, Dietitian at Duke Diet & Fitness Center, entertained her audience on Tuesday evening, Sept 30 with insights on how we are tricked into eating more food than we plan.   Her talk is based on the research of Cornell University Prof Brian Wansink, a consumer behavior and nutritional science expert, who wrote “Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think”.

Consumption norms are influenced by the wide range of factors that can bias an unknowing person to eat or drink more than they otherwise would. For instance, the size of a serving bowl, a plate, or a package has repeatedly been shown to bias how much a person serves himself and eats by an average of 20-30%.  In addition, the perceived variety (color of candies) in an assortment and the proximity of candy on one’s desk has been shown to double how much a person eats over the course of a day.  Because people are estimated to make over 200 food-related decisions a day that they are unaware of making, the seemingly inconsequential impact of lighting, plate size, glass shape, music, companion, table arrangement, and dining companion can have a sizable impact on daily food intake.  Over the course of year, even a 200 calorie daily change in how much one eats would translate into a 20 pound loss in weight or a 20 pound gain in weight.

The extent to which people enjoy food can be influenced by subtle environmental cues. The names of a food can create either positive or negative predispositions that can unfairly bias a person’s perceived taste of a food. Wansink shows this is one reason why advertising or promoting a food as “healthy” unfairly biases people against the taste of a food.  Yet using names and visual cues to guide a person’s expectations can also enhance their perceived taste of a food. In one study, simply labeling a food as being a Succulent Italian Seafood Filet lead restaurant goers to much more favorably rate the taste than when it was simply labeled Seafood Filet.   Similarly, the elegance of dishes and the garnishes on plates has been shown to influence a person’s taste ratings of a food.

A fundamental finding is that our environment—such as the way a food is labeled, presented, stored, or served—biases our eating habits and taste preferences. A large part of eating less and eating better, he argues, involves making small changes to our homes and to the daily ‘mindless’ patterns of our lives. In underscoring this, the first and last sentence of his book, Mindless Eating states, “The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.”

The studies from the lab have been credited with the development of  a wide range of basic, every day insights:

* Moving from a 12-inch to a 10-inch dinner plate leads people to serve and eat 22% less.
* A person will eat an average of 92% of any food they serve themselves.

* The average person makes an excess of 250 decisions about food each day.

* Low-fat labels lead people to eat 16-23% more total calories.
* 50% of the snack food bought in bulk (such as at a warehouse club store) is eaten within six days of purchase

Thanks to Christine Tenekjian, we have been introduced to Prof Wansink’s insights and we can make more mindful, enjoyable, and healthy choices at the dinner table, in the supermarket, at the office—wherever we satisfy our appetites.