How to eat better
Psychologist Brian Wansink says that small changes in our
environment can help us overcome our natural tendency to overeat.
BY LEA WINERMAN • Monitor staff
Want to eat a healthier breakfast? Psychologist Brian Wansink, PhD, might tell you to make a simple change: Move your bran cereal to the front of your
pantry and put the Pop Tarts in back.
Wansink, director of the food and brand lab at Cornell
University and author of the 2006 book “Mindless Eating: Why
We Eat More Than We Think,” studies how things like plate size,
menu descriptions and food placement affect what we eat —
and how much. He’s found that people are much more likely to
eat the most conveniently placed food item in their pantry. He’s
also found that eating from a bigger bowl or plate, or drinking
from a wider glass, can make people consume as much as 30
percent more calories — which, over a lifetime, could add up to
dozens of extra pounds.
Wansink, who has been called the “Sherlock Holmes of
food,” solves his mysteries in a lab that he can dress up to look
like a dining room, a restaurant, an airplane or anywhere else
that people eat. His creative experiments are showing that some
things that many people take for granted — such as the idea
that our body knows when it’s full — are simply false.
In one of his best-known studies, published in 2005 in the
journal Obesity Research (Vol. 13, No. 1), he and his colleagues
lured participants into their restaurant-lab with the offer of a
free lunch. Half of the participants got a normal bowl of tomato
soup. The other half sat down to a meal that seemingly never
ran out. Their bowls were linked via a hidden tube to a six-quart vat of soup under the table. As the participants ate, the
bowls subtly refilled. So from the participants’ perspective, it
looked as though they had hardly eaten anything at all.
Wansink and his colleagues let all of the participants eat for 20
minutes, then measured how much soup they had consumed and
asked them how full they felt. They found that the participants
with the self-refilling bowls ate 73 percent more than those with
the normal bowls — but didn’t report feeling any more full.
“Your tummy is a really terrible gauge of how full you are,”
Wansink told a packed house at APA’s 2011 Annual Convention,
where he described the soup-bowl study and other highlights
from his more than a decade of food research.
For example, your stomach is not the only thing that can be
easily tricked, he’s found. Your tongue isn’t very good at figuring
out how much you like a food either. Wansink has found, for
example, that changing the description of food on a menu —
from, say, “seafood filet” to “succulent Italian seafood filet” —
can make people rate a particular food as tasting better.