Monday, February 28, 2011

Do You Eat Mindlessly?

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Over the past couple of weeks I've been reading the book Mindless Eating written by Brian Wansink.  I'd always heard about the little things you could do to help you eat less or feel more satiated when you sat down for a meal but it wasn't until I read this book that it became quite clear in my mind how it worked.

I found the book very easy to read and the information was presented simply with plenty of examples  of experiments.  The information was also very interesting and at times amusing.  Our world these days really is set up so that we buy more food and overeat and people seem to get tricked by the stupidest things!

Being "Mindful" of these strategies will give you a repertoire of tools to help you fight the automatic internal scripts that make us overeat and put on unneeded fat. I definitely recommend you read the book, as it gave me a clearer picture of how these little tools and tricks worked. Here is just a selection of interesting facts and some of the ways in which our modern life leads us to Mindlessly Eat.

Mindless Fact #1 The size of the container we eat out of matters. 

In one experiment, unsuspecting movie goers were given one of two containers of popcorn: medium or large size.  There was a catch though; the popcorn was not fresh, but stale (5 days old).  Despite the popcorn being stale, the people that were given the large bucket still ate more than the people that were given the medium bucket.  They even told the people that were given the large bucket that some people had been given the medium bucket and that they {the researchers} have found on average that a person given a large size container eats more than if they are given a medium size container.  Most disagreed saying that wouldn't happen to them.  However, the large container group ate 173 more calories of popcorn.

This rule applies to the size of packages of food we purchase; we consume more from bigger packages.  Say for example you purchase a 300g box of cereal and a 1kg box of cereal.  You will always pour more from the 1kg box than the 300g box unless you are actually measuring the amount of cereal (say 1/2 cup) or aiming to fill the bowl to the brim in both cases. It applies to other items too such as shampoo.

Mindless Fact #2 Visual Cues are important

If there is evidence of how much we have eaten, we eat less. In one experiment people were given chicken wings to eat.  On one table the chicken bones were left on the table therefore giving the diners a visual representation of how much they had eaten.  On the other table, the bones were cleared away at regular intervals.  The diners on the table that had their bones cleared away ate 28 per cent more than the diners that did not have their bones cleared away. Further to the visual cues, another experiment showed that feeling full or not hungry is not as strong a signal to stop eating as visually seeing how much we have eaten.  When a group of students were asked when they would stop eating a bowl of soup, the majority of them answered that they would stop when the bowl was empty or if it was half full.  Only a fifth of them said they would stop when they were not hungry anymore.  The experimenters rigged a bottomless soup bowl which kept refilling itself no matter how much the students ate. Half the students ate from the rigged bowls and half ate from normal bowls.  The  people eating from the rigged bowls ate around 15 ounces vs the normal bowls at 9 ounces.

Mindless Fact #3 The bigger the meal, the worse we are at estimating calories

People are quite good at estimating the weight of small objects compared to large objects. If you ask someone to estimate the weight of a book versus a whole shelf of books they were be fairly accurate at estimating the weight of the book.  The same goes for small versus large meals.  The more people eat the less accurate they are at estimating what they have eaten. 

Mindless Fact #4 More variety = more calories eaten

People given a bag of M&Ms with ten colours eat much more than those given a bag with seven colours.  People ate almost twice as many jelly beans if all the different colours are mixed up rather than neatly arranged in separate bowls according to colour.

Mindless Fact #5 Being intelligent and informed doesn't mean you won't be "tricked" into eating more. 

A group of students at a top university were given a 90 minute education session with demonstrations on how larger serving bowls make you eat more. Six weeks after the lecture, they were invited to a Super Bowl party.  Half the students were lead into room that had snacks served in two large gallon bowls and were given plates and asked to serve as much as they wanted.  The other half were led into a room where the snacks were served in four half gallon bowls.  Their plates that they served themselves were secretly weighed and the students that served themselves from the gallon bowls took 53 per cent more and also ate 59 per cent more!  Even though they had sat through an extensive lecture on the very topic several weeks ago, they still fell for the mindless eating tricks!

Mindless Fact #6 Convenient Foods make you eat more

Both proximity and how ready-to-eat the food is makes a difference here.  If a person is presented with two bowls of nuts, one where the nuts are still in their shell and one where they are shelled and ready to eat, that person will eat more nuts from the shelled bowl.  If a candy bowl is within reach versus across the room a person will end up eating more.  The trip across the room gives the person a chance to  think about what they're doing and if they're really hungry for the snack.

Individual packaging indicates serving sizes to people and a "stopping point".  People are more likely to adhere to a serving size if it is clearly marked or there is a "barrier" such as an individually wrapped packet. If you have two open packets of cookies and one has each cookie individually wrapped, whereas the other doesn't the average person would eat more from the unwrapped packet than the individually wrapped ones. Individually wrapped food might cost more but we do eat less of it.

Mindless Fact #7 The description of the food makes a difference

An experiment was carried out in a cafe where a selection of dishes were served one week with plain, factual names and the next week with embellished fancy names. The food with the embellished names sold  more and not only that the customers rated the fancy named dish better than the same dish with a plain, factual name.  This little trick can also work positively for you; the next time you invite guests around for dinner, try giving the dishes fancy names and suddenly the food will taste much better.

Mindless Fact #8 Low Fat labels give us an excuse to eat more

A group of people were either given normal granola or low fat granola to eat during  movie.  The granola was clearly labeled as ""low fat or "regular".  The group given the low fat granola ate 49 per cent more which translated to about 84 calories!

The book is right.  I found myself nodding and smiling throughout just thinking how much I had been tricked myself into over eating because of certain cues.  An important part of the book is like the title suggests, we "mindlessly eat".  We often don't listen to our own bodies: am I hungry?  Am I still hungry now that I have eaten half my plate? Am I really craving that?

As an example of how the book affected me, for the first time today, I actually stopped eating my salad when I was full and absolutely didn't want any more.  I actually probably could have stopped half way when I wasn't hungry, but in the past I normally just finish it off, regardless.  The reason for this is partly because of the bodybuilding mindset that I have from my past.  A typical bodybuilder is always making sure they get in enough calories.  I used to weigh my food and if I didn't eat all my food it meant I wasn't getting in all my protein or calories for the day so I would force myself to eat it.  I barely did any of the body"building" part of bodybuilding because I never found it hard to build muscle, but that meant that if I was dieting and wasn't able to finish off my meal, I was afraid I wasn't getting in enough protein.  Now because I am neither concerned with getting to bodybuilding condition or maintaining/building muscle it should not be a concern to me if I cannot finish my meal.

In the past couple of weeks I have noticeably trimmed down.  I do not attribute this to the book at all as I have overhauled my diet in a big way.  I will attribute the knowledge from this book for maintaining a lower body fat percentage in the future.

Read the book.  You will love it!

Tips to take away to help fight Mindless Eating
  • Use small plates and bowls when serving meals
  • Fill your plate but make the majority of your plate low calorie foods like vegetables
  • Don't eat out of packets; serve yourself what you are going to eat and put the packet away. Even better, serve snacks in pre-portioned baggies rather than on a plate.  A packaged snack indicates one serving size and you are less likely to search for more food.
  • When you go to a party plant yourself far away from the snack table
  • If you're a serial snacker, out of sight is out of mind.  Also, try and put the snack in an inconvenient place like a very high cupboard so it is difficult to get to.
  • If you purchase low fat food for whatever reason, follow the steps above to make sure you don't fall into the trap of eating more because it's low fat.  Calories matter most.

Further Information and Links


  1. No problem. It certainly is an interesting read and I think will help a lot of people!

  2. Hey! Funny, I've been reading a bit about this too. I m definitely going to try to adapt some of thus into my eating,its a goid way i reckon! Thanks for the book tip!

  3. Really great tips. Can't wait to check out the book!

  4. Must find time to read this more later! Thanks for sharing the find!!

  5. I've heard about this book. I was nodding along just reading your post, so I'm thinking my head would hurt from nodding if I actually read the book.

    I do try to take advantage of the mindless eating I do while driving and pack a container full of cut up raw vegetables. I'll eat the whole thing without even noticing.

  6. That's a good idea Michelle - mindlessly eating vegetables! I drink water mindlessly while driving! :-P