Meet the Mind: Brian Wansink

Wansink shares his research on why you eat what you eat—and offers tips for staying healthy this holiday season.

| November 15th, 2011
Courtesy of The Cornell Food and Brand Lab
Brian Wansink

As a boy in Sioux City, Iowa, Brian Wansink, Ph.D. sold vegetables door-to-door. “I found it very perplexing why one person would buy all the vegetables I had in my wagon, and the identical person in the house next to them would look at me like I was carrying kryptonite,” he tells YouBeauty.

At eight years old, Wansink had already discovered the curiosity that would drive his career. He became one of the most well-known food and marketing researchers in his field, teaching everywhere from Illinois to Amsterdam and serving as the Executive Director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion from 2007 to 2009. Now a professor at Cornell University and the founding director of the Food and Brand Lab, Wansink studies the decisions people make about what and how much they eat.

MORE: Design a Skinny Kitchen

Nicknamed “the Sherlock Holmes of food,” Wansink advocates what he calls “mindless eating” (also the name of his 2006 bestselling book). Wansink’s studies show—often with unusual flair—that our environments thwart our efforts to eat mindfully, no matter how hard we try. (Keep reading for Wansink’s advice on how to keep your eating in control, especially around the holidays.) Recently, he’s tackling school lunchrooms—revamping kids’ eating habits by making environmental changes that cost $50 or less. 

Through his research, Wansink has found that people are pretty clueless about their eating habits. “We can have friends who are remarkably smart and well educated and curious and creative. But if you would ask why they ate what they ate for lunch today,” he says, “they wouldn’t really know.”


Discover the hidden traps that make us overeat:

Low-Fat Labels Invite Overeating
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We Can't Stop Eating
If We Can Reach It, We'll Eat It

QUIZ: What Are Your Eating Habits?

It isn’t just that people don’t know what, or how much, they eat: most of our decisions about food are heavily influenced by external factors that we are completely unaware of. “Regardless of how tuned-in we think we are to what we eat, we are just a nation of mindless eaters. And part of the problem comes from the fact that we make over 200 decisions about food every day,” he says. We don’t just choose the salad over the soup: we choose how much salad to put on our plates, how much to eat, how much dressing to add, whether to get seconds—even whether to eat that last olive.

MORE: Five Healthy Snacks Under 150 Calories

We tend to believe that these choices are dependent on our willpower, but overwhelmingly, we’re susceptible to the things around us. The size of a plate, the distance to a bowl of candy, the room’s lighting, the size of the serving spoon, the labeling on the package—all of these have huge effects on our eating habits.


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