Book review: Mindless Eating

Written by Catherine Saxelby on Friday, 09 July 2010.
Tagged: eating mindfully, hunger, review

Book review: Mindless Eating

"Mindless Eating" is one of the best nutrition books I've read in the last four years. It was a real eye-opener for me - and I suspect for most of us - as it shows why you may not realize how much you're eating, what you're eating - or why you're even eating at all!  It starts out by pointing out that everyone makes over 200 food decisions each day but we have no idea why we're making them nor how we're influenced by the "hidden persuaders" around us!

According to the author, US eating behaviour expert Brian Wansink, what we eat is greatly influenced by powerful invisible factors such as who is eating with us, the size of the package or the plate the food is served on, product names and claims, room lighting, the proximity of food, and distractions of the external world. He tells us these are environmental influences that are beyond our conscious awareness.

This is not your usual boring diet book with Calorie-counted diet plans and exercise guidelines. It's more of a collection of research studies organised into 10 chapters. It could have been a series of dry academic reports. Instead it's a readable and (at times) irreverent book with clever drawings and self-help advice for the overweight. The research on why, how, what and when we eat is interesting and informative. You'll never look at movie popcorn the same way again!

The goal of the book is to help you remove those unconscious cues that trigger overeating and to re-engineer your environment and eating habits for weight loss. Dr Wansink calls these "Eating Scripts."

The Mindless Method

He recommends using the "Mindless Method" to promote weight loss by assigning proven solutions to our eating scripts to change bad eating habits into positive eating habits, mindlessly and without effort. For example, simple tactics such as keeping the lollies out of sight and away from your desk reduces the number you eat at work as you have to make more effort to get up and get one. 

"The best diet is the one

you don't know you're on."

This is a book that encourages small, almost effortless environmental changes to save 100 calories each day for slow and steady weight control. Called the "Mindless Margin", this represents a painless way of undereating which he thinks will work due to the fact that we are generally not aware of overeating or undereating by 100 calories. Shifting mindless 100-calorie overeating to mindless 100-calorie undereating is the key to success according to Wansink. This translates to his infamous quip: "The best diet is the one you don't know you're on."

The movie popcorn experiment

brian_wansink_w_popcornHis most famous experiment - and one I love to relate - is the "stale movie popcorn study," which showed that moviegoers consistently ate more popcorn - even stale popcorn - from a larger tub than from a smaller tub. I've summarised the details in my Healthy Weight Loss article here.

Wansink also did the "Super Bowl chicken bone study," which showed that leaving the chicken wing residue on the table (during the Super Bowl) acted as negative feedback, so that those with residue on the table ate fewer chicken wings than did those without residue on the table.

I found myself fascinated by his ingenious bottomless soup bowl experiment where he and his colleagues invented a soup bowl that secretly refilled itself, so you never managed to eat your way to the bottom. In Candid-Camera style, they drilled a one-inch hole right through a sturdy restaurant table when a waiter would ordinarily set a soup bowl. Then they drilled another hole in the base of a soup bowl to attach rubber tubing to it. This allowed them to secretly re-fill the soup bowl while the subject was eating it so it automatically kept refilling.

The results were as you may have guessed - people eating from the bottomless bowl ate and ate and ate, often eating three times more than normal without realising!

The message is simple - people don't listen to their stomach. They don't know when to stop. We see this time and again at buffets, yum cha restaurants and family dinners where food is on display in unlimited amounts.

How and why we eat more - without noticing

Wansink has also shown that tall glasses look "bigger" than short squat glasses yet contain the same volume. And we consume more ice cream off large spoons than if we eat with small spoons. Menus are more enticing when restaurants use elaborate names and mouth-watering descriptions such as:

Seafood fillet Succulent Italian seafood fillet
Chicken Parmesan Home-made organic Chicken Parmesan
Hamburger Gourmet beef burger with caramelised onions
Carrots Honey herb carrots

Mindless top tips

Here are my pick of Brian Wansink's great insights to prevent mindless overeating:

  • Put 20 per cent less on your plate at the start of a meal since studies show people can eat 20 per cent less without noticing.
  • Pre-plate your complete meal before you start so you can view ALL the food you're going to eat instead of going back for seconds or eating directly out of large packages. Sit down. Eat slowly. This can help reduce consumption by 14 per cent.
  • Decrease the amount of food you eat by at least 15 per cent just by downsizing your plate and spoons and drink from tall, skinny glasses.
  • Make overeating a hassle. Store junk food (chips, chocolate, lollies, biscuits) farther away, covered or hidden, to make it inconvenient to eat them.
  • Make eating distraction-free in the five most common diet danger zones - dinners, snacks, parties, restaurants and desks/dashboards.
  • Incorporate soft lighting, music, nice plates, tablecloth and glasses to turn nutritious and ordinary into delicious and extraordinary.
  • Re-look at comfort food. Recondition your palate to more healthful comfort foods by pairing the better-for-you version with positive events. For example, instead of celebrating with a chocolate sundae ice cream after a big event, try a small bowl of ice cream with fresh berries.
  • Men and women have different comfort foods. Men love ice-cream, soup, pizza or pasta. Women reach for anything sweet and snack-like such as chocolate, cake, biscuits and ice-creams.
  • Remember that your mood influences food preferences and consumption.
  • Be the family food gatekeeper - the person who shops and prepares the food controls 72 per cent of what a family eats.
  • At fast food outlets, be aware of how much big portion size, variety and convenience lead you to overindulge.
  • Be wary of all claims and advertisements for things like light, low-fat and 99% fat-free on foods that probably aren't that good for you. This is nicknamed the Halo Effect. Most people eat 21 per cent more if they think what they are eating is healthy instead of fattening.
  • Make only three small changes a day to your eating instead of a dramatic diet overhaul. This is the Mindless Margin.

My rating 9 out of 10

I highly recommend Mindless Eating. It's a fascinating read about the hidden forces behind our food choices, and how easy it is to eat without thinking! Many of our current strategies for weight loss haven't worked to date and so the obesity problem persists. I loved this book and reckon we can do no harm by giving it a go. As Dr Wansink says: "It's a lot easier to change your environment than to change yourself."

About the author

Mindless Eating book redBrian Wansink (Ph.D Stanford) is the director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. He is the lead author of over 100 academic articles and books on eating behaviour, including the best-selling Mindless Eating. He's spent a lifetime studying what we don't notice: the hidden cues that determine how much and why people eat.

Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink, New York, NY: Bantam Books 2007; Paperback and hard cover; 304 pp; ISBN-13:978-0553384482.

Check out his website for more info:

Buy the book here.

Catherine Saxelby

About the Author

Catherine Saxelby knows nutrition! She is an accredited nutritionist, food commentator, blogger and award-winning author. Her latest book Catherine Saxelby's Food and Nutrition Companion answers all those tricky questions on healthy eating, diets and supplements. It draws together a lifetime of advice and gives you all you need to know to eat right! It's a complete A to Z. A handy desk go-to reference.