Mind­less eat­ing: why does it con­sume us?

Peo­ple eat mind­lessly, ig­nor­ing sig­nals from their stom­achs but not those of the mar­keters and pack­agers, writes Jonathan Ariel

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Health -

OMind­less Eat­ing: Why We Eat More Than We Think . His in­fat­u­a­tion is not with obe­sity per se, but rather with how much we eat, how we eat, and most im­por­tantly, why we eat un­think­ingly or ‘‘ mind­lessly’’.

Given that fat equals calo­ries ‘‘ in’’ less calo­ries ‘‘ out’’, the eas­ier it is to in­gest calo­ries and the eas­ier it is not to burn them, the fat­ter we get. Mod­ern science al­lows the prepa­ra­tion of food to be as easy as pie (par­don the pun), where foods can go (al­most au­to­mat­i­cally) from the su­per­mar­ket freezer to the mi­crowave to the stom­ach in short or­der.

And given the won­ders of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy, it is easy to live with­out ex­er­cise.

A car takes us to the train sta­tion, a train takes us to work and the fur­thest we’re likely to walk is from our work sta­tion to the of­fice fridge. So you see, it’s hard yakka to use up all those calo­ries we con­sume.

But Wansink is a step ahead. While we know that we eat more than we should, he wants to know if we are even aware of just how much we con­sume.

Obe­sity can be looked at as ei­ther a con­scious de­ci­sion or an un­con­scious de­ci­sion.

Eco­nomic so­phis­ti­cates that we are, we can view obe­sity as a con­scious choice. Some peo­ple choose to gorge. Oth­ers choose to nib­ble. But those who choose to eat a great deal don’t elect to eat ‘‘ bad’’ food on the un­der­stand­ing that spare tyres will be the price they’ll pay in due course.

Peo­ple don’t fac­tor in fu­ture ex­er­cise as the tax they’ll pay for stuff­ing them­selves silly at an all-you-can-wolf-down buf­fet. The main K then, hands up how many of you watched television last night? And while watch­ing, did you snack on any­thing? Corn chips? Cheese and crack­ers? Dried fruit? Nuts? Choco­lates? Or all of the above? And did you snack alone or in the com­pany of oth­ers?

And if you did snack, keep those hands up, were your eyes glued to the television while your hand con­tin­u­ously speared the in­sides of an opaque packet or a box to re­trieve tasty but highly calorific morsels and stuff them into your mouth?

And tell me, when did you feel ‘‘ full’’? My guess is that you felt ‘‘ full’’ when you fin­ished the packet or box — re­gard­less of its size — and not when you be­lieved you had ac­tu­ally had enough food.

Well, that’s what Brian Wansink ar­gues, and he’s got the goods to back it up.

Wansink is pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing and nu­tri­tional science at Cornell in New York City. He also di­rects the Cornell Food and Brand Lab and has writ­ten rea­son for this, Wansink be­lieves, is that we are bliss­fully un­aware of the quan­tum we eat.

In his words, our ‘‘‘ stom­achs can­not count’’’ and we ‘‘‘ eat with our eyes’’. We all (with­out ex­cep­tion) con­sis­tently un­der­es­ti­mate the calo­ries we take in.

He gives nu­mer­ous ex­am­ples of test din­ers from fast-food restau­rants (Sub­way and McDon­ald’s) as well as from ex­per­i­ments that he set up in his lab, re­veal­ing that not only do all eaters un­der­es­ti­mate the calo­ries they scoffed, but they all ate way past the point of be­ing ‘‘ full’.

He blames this in part on the lag of some 20 min­utes be­tween the time a per­son is full and the time the brain reg­is­ters that fact.

An­other way of look­ing at obe­sity is from a be­havioural or un­con­scious per­spec­tive.

This refers to self-con­trol. Or more cor­rectly, an ab­sence of self-con­trol. Wansink asks: ‘‘ Why do we overeat food that doesn’t taste good?’’

And rather than stop­ping to eat when we are full, un­con­scious sig­nals alert us to stop at an en­tirely dif­fer­ent point in time. Sig­nals such as reach­ing the bot­tom of the pack of corn chips (never mind the pack was half a kilo). Or ev­ery­one else has al­ready left the restau­rant, and we’re sit­ting with a half-full bread bas­ket. Why, he asks, do we overeat at all? He an­swers that eat­ing is a func­tion of so­cial and en­vi­ron­men­tal fac­tors — we eat be­cause of what’s around us: peo­ple, noise, mu­sic, length of a television show, and even the food con­tainer.

He es­tab­lished that if a food con­tainer, for in­stance, is in­fused with a nice smell, then more of the food from that con­tainer will be con­sumed. But with a less invit­ing aroma, less food will be con­sumed. True, this isn’t rocket science, but Wansink (un­like us) sweats on the small stuff. The things most of us dis­miss as be­ing in­con­se­quen­tial, he re­gards as prin­ci­pal.

While we main­tain that eat­ing is pri­mar­ily a func­tion of hunger, Wansink proves oth­er­wise. Most of us are deaf to the in­vis­i­ble sounds gen­er­ated by mar­keters and blind to the sleight of hand of ad­ver­tis­ers. We also think that we’re not hostage to our habits. Well, the joke’s on us. Food and how it’s pre­sented de­ter­mines how likely it is that it will be con­sumed. He com­pares restau­rant menus of­fer­ing iden­ti­cal dishes but un­der dif­fer­ent names: one menu has straight­for­ward iden­ti­fiers and the other menu has fancier-sound­ing de­scrip­tors.

The fancy-sound­ing dishes (and wines) are not only cho­sen by the test din­ers, but are lauded — even when they are iden­ti­cal to dishes with straight­for­ward names.

Wansink’s be­lieves that how and how much we eat is a func­tion of any­thing other than hunger. One likely func­tion is con­ve­nience.

He il­lus­trates: say there is a box of 30 choco­lates on your of­fice desk. While it is not ex­pected that you’ll pol­ish off the en­tire box in one in­nings, it is rea­son­able to ex­pect that ev­ery now and then you’ll se­cretly take one piece.

Why? Be­cause what is more vis­i­ble is more tempt­ing. And be­cause it is vis­i­ble, it is on your mind. Now, imag­ine the same box is lo­cated 20 m from your desk. How of­ten would you eat those choco­lates? Is the walk of 40 m (be­ing 20 m each way) re­ally worth the ef­fort? I thought not . . .

An­other per­suader is the men­tal vi­su­al­i­sa­tion of food. Wansink gives many ex­am­ples to ar­gue his case. For in­stance, see­ing a box of donuts, even when not hun­gry, be­gins a men­tal process that con­cludes only when the donuts are eaten. Think Homer Simp­son.

Wansink ex­plores this when com­par­ing two of­fice work­ers and their de­ci­sion to visit the mail­room. Ear­lier in the day, one worker, Ge­orge, saw donuts be­ing car­ried into the mail­room (and hence has been think­ing con­stantly about them) and the other worker, Will, has no idea about the donuts.

Wansink re­veals that Ge­orge will make a greater ef­fort to visit the mail­room than would Will, and Ge­orge will eat more donuts when he gets there. Even if they are stale! His eat­ing is pre­med­i­tated.

Will, who stum­bles upon the donuts, will eat im­pul­sively, which usu­ally means eat­ing less than a pre­med­i­tated eater. Take your­self as an ex­am­ple. Think of a time when you fasted, say, be­fore a med­i­cal pro­ce­dure. You al­ways knew when the fast would end, and no doubt thought deeply of the foods with which you wanted to break the fast.

Most likely you wolfed down your post-fast meal and went to bed with a sore tummy af­ter overeat­ing.

Why? Be­cause, among other things, your brain reg­is­tered ‘‘ full’’ well af­ter your stom­ach was sated. Who knows how many ex­tra slices of meat lovers’ pizza and litres of soft­drink you gob­bled af­ter you were full?

While (bad) habits con­trib­ute to eat­ing with­out think­ing, Wansink ad­mits the re­verse is also true. Not eat­ing cer­tain foods (which may be ben­e­fi­cial) is also an in­grained (bad) habit. He cites an ex­am­ple where mar­keters have ig­nored the re­la­tion­ship (real or per­ceived) be­tween the tar­get mar­ket (I as­sume, young ac­tive peo­ple) and the prod­uct of­fered (pro­tein bars con­tain­ing soy), re­sult­ing in very poor sales.

Ap­par­ently the test group, in ag­gre­gate, pre­vi­ously had neg­a­tive en­coun­ters with soy.

Is Mind­less Eat­ing a di­etary roadmap or a book on de­ci­sion mak­ing?

Good ques­tion. As a roadmap it’s help­ful. It should as­sist any­one who has reached their ideal weight keep the weight off. It may even help read­ers shed a few ki­los. But I bet it won’t help the se­verely obese, who are bet­ter off con­sid­er­ing li­po­suc­tion or gas­tric bands.

The real point of the book is to help read­ers make in­formed choices by recog­nis­ing their bad habits and ef­fec­tively fil­ing for di­vorce from them.

The crux of Wansink’s ar­gu­ment is that while we pro­claim that there are nu­mer­ous in­signif­i­cant en­vi­ron­men­tal cues — let’s call them the de­fault cues — that are in­volved in our daily de­ci­sion-mak­ing re­gard­ing food, in fact th­ese seem­ingly ‘‘ in­signif­i­cant’’ cues sway us and are far more po­tent in de­ter­min­ing our de­ci­sions than we re­alise.

And if this is true for food, it may be true for other as­pects of life. For in­stance: are you in the su­per­an­nu­a­tion plan in your of­fice which is the de­fault (of­fice) plan? Or did you specif­i­cally choose an­other in­vest­ment strat­egy, that meets your needs bet­ter? My money’s on the for­mer, af­ter all, it’s so easy to go with the flow, isn’t it?

Wansink wants us to un­der­stand the chasm be­tween the sig­nals our stom­ach sends, and the way our brain in­ter­prets and re­sponds to those sig­nals. And he doesn’t ad­vo­cate a ban on the mar­ket­ing and sale of ‘‘ bad’’ foods.

In­stead he wants us to be alert to the evil tricks of both mar­keters and ad­ver­tis­ers, as well as to the so­cial in­flu­ences around us, so that we can over­come our mind­less eat­ing habits and find our­selves eat­ing well.

Un­think­ingly. Mind­lessEat­ing:WhyWeEatMoreThanWe Think . Brian Wansink. Ban­tam Books.

Out of con­trol: Wansink looks at the psy­chol­ogy of eat­ing — why we only stop at the bot­tom of the packet, and not when feel­ing full

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.