Sunday, January 21, 2007

Mindless Eating (Brian Wansink)

Wansink's lab ran a study using American soldiers to see how eating in the dark affected the taste of food. The researchers told the soldiers they would be trying a new kind of strawberry yogurt and that they wanted to make sure that it tasted good, even in the dark. The researchers turned off the lights and gave the soldiers the yogurt. The soldiers all said the strawberry yogurt was good, and one soldier, who said strawberry was her favorite flavor of yogurt, said this would be her new favorite brand. Well, here's the thing. It wasn't strawberry yogurt. It was chocolate yogurt.

This is just one of the many intriguing studies in Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink. Wansink is a scientist, not a diet book writer or a nutritionist. He is also not a food snob. While he does enjoy a good fine-dining restaurant, he also is a big fan of Burger King’s Cini-Minis. His job is to do research on what we eat and what specifically changes what and how we eat. Wansink tells us right away in the introduction that the average person makes over 200 decisions about food every day, most of which are unconscious (after thinking about this statistic, I decided I probably make more than that and Jim decided he probably makes less). We take cues from such things as food packaging, restaurant lighting, food appearance, and environment. And while you may think that you’re smart enough to be immune (trust me, that’s how I felt when I started reading this book), you’re not: Wansink proves that time and again with all his research.

Wansink also says that this book is not about “dietary extremism.” He has a long discussion about why most deprivation diets---Atkin’s, South Beach, SugarBusters---don’t work: “1) Our body fights against them; 2) our brain fights against them; 3) our day-to-day environment fights against them.”

What the book is about is using what he refers to as the “mindless margin” to work for us in maintaining or losing weight. The mindless margin is a span of about 200 calories that can make the difference between gaining 10 pounds in a year (by eating 100 calories more a day) or losing 10 pounds in a year (by eating 100 calories less a day). The reason he calls it mindless is because your brain and body won’t even notice that the 100 calories are missing.

He covers a wide variety of topics and research in the book, including why we overeat when we aren’t even hungry and the power of numbers in grocery store promotions (e.g., “'2 for $2’ versus ‘1 for $1’”):

“After the research was completed and published in the Journal of Marketing Research, another friend and I were in the checkout line at a grocery store, where I saw a sign advertising gum, '10 packs for $2.' I was eagerly counting out 10 packs onto the conveyer belt, when my friend commented, ‘Didn’t you just publish a big research paper on that?’”

One study focused on the eating habits of young children, focusing on their like/dislike of vegetables. His initial assumption was that parents who practiced healthy eating habits would have children who liked vegetables. That may have been true for some, but he came across a day-care center filled with children who loved broccoli, regardless of their parents' eating habits:

“Many of the children told us they loved broccoli because their friends liked it or because it was ‘cool.’ Most of these associations we could trace back to two little brothers. In their laddering interviews both said broccoli reminded them of dinosaur trees, and they liked it because of that. This didn’t make much sense, but because of the far-reaching impact it seemed to have on the rest of the day-care group, we interviewed the mother in person. We discovered she had convinced them that broccoli looked like a dinosaur tree and when they ate broccoli, they could pretend they were ‘long-necked dinosaurs eating the dinosaur trees.’ At the dinosaur-loving age of three and five, this was pretty cool, and it quickly became pretty cool to their friends.”

I highly recommend this book to everyone. It's fun to read, you'll learn tons of neat information that will impress your friends, and it makes science fun.

Next book up: Braniac: Adventures in the Curious, Competitive, Compulsive World of Trivia Buffs by Ken Jennings

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