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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.”

EXPLORE WANSINK'S KEY STUDIES

Discover the hidden traps that make us overeat:

Low-Fat Labels Invite Overeating
Economy-Size Is a Diet-Buster
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.

 

This knowledge inherently disturbs us. “I took a look at thousands of people who’ve been involved in my studies over the years, and I went back and I analyzed what they said after the study was over,” says Wansink. He showed participants in one study that they’d overeaten because of the size of the plate; in another study, that they’d overeaten because of the size of the box; in yet another, that they’d overeaten because of who was sitting next to them. “About 94 percent of the people did not believe that they had been influenced at all by what went on in the study," he says. "They all believed they were totally unaffected.”

EXPLORE WANSINK'S KEY STUDIES

Discover the hidden traps that make us overeat:

Low-Fat Labels Invite Overeating
Economy-Size Is a Diet-Buster
We Can't Stop Eating
If We Can Reach It, We'll Eat It

Part of the reason is that acknowledging we are affected makes us feel dumb. “Everybody believes they’re smarter than a bowl. They think they’re smarter than the size of a plate. They think they’re smarter than the way they arrange their cabinet,” Wansink says. Not to mention that we feel out of control.

QUIZ: Do You Eat Pretty?

When we can’t rely on our willpower, what do we have?

Courtesy of The Cornell Food and Brand Lab
Meet the Mind: Brian Wansink

“To mindfully stare at a pea and say, ‘Let me taste the pea,’ is really not going to work for most of us,” Wansink says. “But the good news is that the secret of mindless eating is not mindful eating, but instead changing our environments in a way that we can mindlessly eat less without even thinking about it.”

At holiday meals, Wansink suggests you make sure you’re sitting at least six feet away from the snacks—that tends to decrease the amount we eat by about 60 percent. Before the meal starts, eat only homemade snacks, not things like peanuts, chips, or store-bought peanut brittle. Use a small plate instead of a big one, and fill half of it with fruits and vegetables. (We’re not saying you’ll avoid all the pecan pie but we promise, you’ll eat less.)

MORE: The Psychology of Food Advertising

The Lab’s research has influenced the way a lot of our food is marketed and served. Wansink found that people snack about 40 percent less if they can reseal the bag—hence the development of resealable potato chip and candy bags. Taking a tip from a Wansink study, some bars started serving drinks in taller, narrower glasses that hold less alcohol—people think they’re drinking more than they are, so they get less drunk and drink fewer calories (better for the bar and for us, both). We also tend to eat what we’re served, no matter how big it is, so some companies have introduced 100-calorie snack packs.

GALLERY: Outsmart Your Eating Instincts With 10 “Mindless” Tips

Many of these changes can be implemented on our own. The key isn’t trying to force mindful eating: it’s pre-empting ourselves. By binge-proofing your environment, you’ll be more likely to make smart food choices.

It’s as easy as replacing your plates. 


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.”

EXPLORE WANSINK'S KEY STUDIES

Discover the hidden traps that make us overeat:

Low-Fat Labels Invite Overeating
Economy-Size Is a Diet-Buster
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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