There's no one proven way to maintain healthy weight. If there were, obesity wouldn't be a top public health priority. However, research by Cornell psychologist Brian Wansick provides some of the best advice you'll ever hear about how to eat less-- by thinking more.
Wansick's book, Mindless Eating, and its corresponding website, will give you ample tools to help you learn how to put mindfulness into your eating. One of the simplest involves the size of your plate. Eating on a smaller plate will help you eat less. Even though you "know" that the food amount is the same, a combination of visual illusions and magical thinking cause you to underestimate the amount you're eating when the plate is large. Your plate should not only be small, but it should also be a contrasting color from the food that's on it. Since the unhealthiest foods we eat tend to be white (mashed potatoes, white rice, bread) the plates we eat on should be dark, not white. People will serve themselves more food when the plate matches the food.
How about exercise? Do you think that exercising more will help you eat less? In a recent journal article, Wansick and his research team show that people who exercise more are actually more likely to eat more. Baumeister's "ego depletion" model explains the poorer eating habits of exercisers as due to loss of self-control. Instead, Wansick proposes a slightly different "compensation" model. He believes that we exercise more after we eat because we feel like we deserve to reward ourselves. According to one of the recent studies carried out in his lab, even thinking about exercise can cause people to eat more (Werle et al., 2011). Unless you are explicitly aware of this all-too-human tendency, your exercise regime will never get you to your desired weight goal.
Why does Wansick use the term "Mindless" to describe eating? His extensive research shows that people don't think about what they eat, and therefore aren't able to control their eating (Wansick & Sobal, 2007). One source of mindless eating is the "food environment," which as the term implies, refers to the situational factors that control how much, when, and what we eat. The food environment includes the way that food is packaged, put on the plate, and the way it is served. The second source is the "eating environment," which include such factors as time of day, how much effort is involved in eating, who else is present while you're eating, and what distractions are around you. People overeat because they are unaware of the food decisions they make and because they don't believe that they're influenced by the size of their plate or its color. If you want to control your eating, you need to become mindful of your food and your eating environments.
In addition to being influenced by the size of your plate, you may be influenced by how much you think you have eaten. Wansick and his research team cleverly manipulated the perception of eaters in his lab by creating a bottomless soup bowl. The eaters didn't realize how much soup they were consuming because the bowl never seemed to get empty. The moral of the story is that if you are from the "clean plate school," you will be more likely to overeat because you'll keep going until you see no more food in front of you.
We make decisions about eating all the time, even though we may be unaware of how we make these decisions. Wansick's team asked a range of adults to estimate the number of food decisions they made every time they were confronted with the possibility of eating. The sample came up with a whopping 227 per day. These decisions included when, what, how much, where, and who for a typical meal, snack, and drink. Comparing the number of food decisions across groups of people with three levels of body weight (normal, overweight, and obese), the researchers found that the obese individuals made the most food decisions (300 per day), but the normal weight individuals made the second largest number of decisions (224). The obese individuals were making many decisions but their behavior differed from the normal weight participants. The obese participants were more likely to answer "yes" when asking themselves whether to eat; the normal weight individuals answered "no."
In another set of studies, Wansick's research team showed definitively that people eat more when given a larger container of food than when they're given a smaller container. The researchers actually monitored the amount of Chex Mix snacks that MBA students ate at a Super Bowl party in relation to the size of the snack bowls. The students who served themselves the snack from a 4-liter bowl helped themselves to 53% more of the tasty morsels than those who were snacking from a bowl half the size. People will even eat more stale popcorn from a large bucket than they will eat freshly popped kernels served up in a small bucket.
Food placement is another important influence on mindless eating. You may have heard of changes being made in school lunchrooms to put healthy foods in more prominent and attractive positions as students go through the line. Called the "smarter lunchroom movement," these changes are easy to implement, and are a proven way to promote healthier choices in our nation's schools.
We like to think of ourselves as rational, but there's plenty of evidence to suggest that when food is concerned, we're anything but. Not only do we make poor food decisions under the influence of factors we don't recognize but we also make poor decisions when we think we know what we're doing. Seeing a calorie chart posted on the wall at a fast-food chain counter, for example, may lead you to order up the higher- rather than lower-calorie option. Public health experts continue to underestimate the role of these psychological traps that influence our eating decisions.
I strongly urge you to check out the Mindless Eating website, which has far more tips, links to videos and articles, and assessment tools. If we could all become mindful eaters, we could produce a revolution in health care costs and, more importantly, our health.
To sum up, here are five of the most important the take-away (if not take-out) messages about mindful eating.
1.Recognize how many food decisions you make a day. You make literally hundreds of food decisions each day. You'll be more likely to make the healthy ones when you learn what influences those decisions.
2. Monitor your plate size and color. Serve yourself from smaller plates, preferably ones that provide a contrast with the food you're eating.
3. Place healthy foods in more prominent positions in your home. Putting a fruit bowl on your desk or kitchen countertop instead of a candy bowl will make it easier for you (and your family) to make a healthy food decision.
4. Commit yourself to diet AND exercise. If you fall prey to the "compensation" mentality, you won't make progress on your weight goals. Rewarding yourself for engaging in exercise by a pleasurable activity other than food.
5. Focus on the food, not something else, when you're eating. People who eat at their desks while continuing to do work at their computers not only ruin their keyboards, but also consume more calories. Similarly, turn off the television at mealtimes even if you're eating alone.
Adopting food mindfulness instead of mindlessness may take time. You may not even realize that you need to make this change in your mental set. However, the good news is that it won't take as much effort as you might imagine before you'll be making healthy food decisions.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2012
Wansink, B., & Sobal, J. (2007). Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook. Environment And Behavior, 39(1), 106-123. doi:10.1177/0013916506295573
Werle, C. C., Wansink, B., & Payne, C. R. (2011). Just thinking about exercise makes me serve more food. Physical activity and calorie compensation. Appetite, 56(2), 332-335. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2010.12.016