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
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