Seduced by Snacks? No, Not You

  1. Seduced by Snacks? No, Not You

    By KIM SEVERSON

    Published: October 11, 2006, NYT


    Seduced by Snacks? No, Not You - New York Times



    PEOPLE almost always think they are too smart for Prof. Brian Wansink’s quirky experiments in the psychology of overindulgence.
    When it comes to the slippery issues of snacking and portion control, no one thinks he or she is the schmo who digs deep into the snack bowl without thinking, or orders dessert just because a restaurant plays a certain kind of music.
    “To a person, people will swear they aren’t influenced by the size of a package or how much variety there is on a buffet or the fancy name on a can of beans, but they are,” Dr. Wansink said. “Every time.”
    He has the data to prove it. Dr. Wansink, who holds a doctorate in marketing from Stanford University and directs the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, probably knows more about why we put things in our mouths than anybody else. His experiments examine the cues that make us eat the way we do. The size of an ice cream scoop, the way something is packaged and whom we sit next to all influence how much we eat. His research doesn’t pave a clear path out of the obesity epidemic, but it does show the significant effect one’s eating environment has on slow and steady weight gain.
    In an eight-seat lab designed to look like a cozy kitchen, Dr. Wansink offers free lunches in exchange for hard data. He opened the lab at Cornell in April, after he moved it from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he spent eight years conducting experiments in cafeterias, grocery stores and movie theaters. Dr. Wansink presents his work to dieticians, food executives and medical professionals. They use it to get people to eat differently.
    His research on how package size accelerates consumption led, in a roundabout way, to the popular 100-calorie bags of versions of Wheat Thins and Oreos, which are promoted for weight management. Although food companies have long used packaging and marketing techniques to get people to buy more food, Dr. Wansink predicts companies will increasingly use some of his research to help people eat less or eat better, even if it means not selling as much food. He reasons that companies will make up the difference by charging more for new packaging that might slow down consumption or that put seemingly healthful twists on existing brands. And they get to wear a halo for appearing to do their part to prevent obesity.
    To his mind, the 65 percent of Americans who are overweight or obese got that way, in part, because they didn’t realize how much they were eating.
    “We don’t have any idea what the normal amount to eat is, so we look around for clues or signals,” he said. “When all you see is that big portions of food cost less than small ones, it can be confusing.”
    Although people think they make 15 food decisions a day on average, his research shows the number is well over 200. Some are obvious, some are subtle. The bigger the plate, the larger the spoon, the deeper the bag, the more we eat. But sometimes we decide how much to eat based on how much the person next to us is eating, sometimes moderating our intake by more than 20 percent up or down to match our dining companion.
    Much of his work is outlined in the book “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think” (Bantam), which will be published on Tuesday. The book is his fourth over all, but his first directed at a general audience. It is peppered with his goofy, appealing Midwestern humor and practical diet tips. But the most fascinating material is directly from his studies on university campuses and in test kitchens for institutions like the United States Army.
    An appalling example of our mindless approach to eating involved an experiment with tubs of five-day-old popcorn. Moviegoers in a Chicago suburb were given free stale popcorn, some in medium-size buckets, some in large buckets. What was left in the buckets was weighed at the end of the movie. The people with larger buckets ate 53 percent more than people with smaller buckets. And people didn’t eat the popcorn because they liked it, he said. They were driven by hidden persuaders: the distraction of the movie, the sound of other people eating popcorn and the Pavlovian popcorn trigger that is activated when we step into a movie theater.
    Dr. Wansink is particularly proud of his bottomless soup bowl, which he and some undergraduates devised with insulated tubing, plastic dinnerware and a pot of hot tomato soup rigged to keep the bowl about half full. The idea was to test which would make people stop eating: visual cues, or a feeling of fullness.
    People using normal soup bowls ate about nine ounces. The typical bottomless soup bowl diner ate 15 ounces. Some of those ate more than a quart, and didn’t stop until the 20-minute experiment was over. When asked to estimate how many calories they had consumed, both groups thought they had eaten about the same amount, and 113 fewer calories on average than they actually had.
    Last week in his lab seven people were finishing lunch while watching a big-screen TV. Cartoons on the TV served as a distraction so participants would not be influenced by what and how much those nearby ate.
    Because he does not take money from food companies and is a newcomer at the university, the lab runs on the cheap. The menus, like the one on this day, are often built from Beefaroni, applesauce, M&M’s and Chex Mix: simple, inexpensive food that subjects are familiar with and that can be easily manipulated.
    He prefers to experiment on graduate students or office workers, whom he sometimes lures with the promise of a drawing for an iPod. “It’s easy to find undergraduates to participate, but with the guys nothing makes sense because they all eat like animals,” he said.
    On this day he is testing how much people eat depending on whether they have exercised. Over the past several weeks they have sent subjects, some who have exercised and some who have not, through an unlimited buffet line. By measuring the difference between how much and what people eat depending on whether they have exercised, Dr. Wansink hopes to prove that even moderate exercise makes us think we are entitled to many more calories than we actually burned.
    “Geez Louise, you can’t believe how much people eat to overcompensate,” he said.
    Those kinds of things — intuitive bits we know about food but think we are either immune to or don’t think about — are the spine of “Mindless Eating.” In it he outlines an eating plan based on simple awareness. Employ a few tricks and you can take in 100 to 300 fewer calories a day. At the end of a year you could be 10 to 30 pounds lighter.
    For example, sit next to the person you think will be the slowest eater when you go to a restaurant, and be the last one to start eating. Plate high-calorie foods in the kitchen but serve vegetables family style. Never eat directly from a package. Wrap tempting food in foil so you don’t see it. At a buffet put only two items on your plate at a time.
    His dieting methods aren’t as fast as the Atkins plan or even Weight Watchers, and have little to do with matters that consume nutrition researchers or even culinarians. Dr. Wansink is not that guy. Although he has studied to be a sommelier and keeps a mental list of his 100 best meals, he drinks vats of Diet Coke and will inhale a box of Burger King Cini-mini rolls with no apologies. He doesn’t think that his work will solve the obesity problem, but it’s a start.
    “It’s like a big pyramid,” he said. “The people at 30,000 feet can look down and say we need a wholesale change in our food system, in school lunches, in the way we farm.” At the bottom of the pyramid, he said, are the nutritionists and the diet fanatics who think the problem will be solved by examining every nutrient and calorie.
    Dr. Wansink does his research for the person in the middle, the guy on the sofa who can appreciate a good meal, whether it is from Le Bernardin or Le Burger King.
    “Will being more mindful about how we eat make everyone 100 pounds lighter next year?” he said. “No, but it might make them 10 pounds lighter.”
    And the best part, he promises, is that you won’t even notice.