Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think

Mindless eating: Why we eat more than we think

By Brian Wansink, Ph.D.

I grew up in Iowa, which is total farm country, and all anybody does there is work with food and sell vegetables. Growing up as a little boy, I was always amazed at why one house would buy everything I had in the wagon and the other house would look at me like I was carrying kryptonite. This childhood experience really sparked my research interests.

Brian Wansink discusses his research on why we eat more than we think.

Mindless Eating

Many times, the reasons behind food choices are completely unknown. The smartest person you know cannot explain why they ate a salad instead of soup this morning, or why they ate one breakfast food instead of another. At my lab at Cornell Food and Brand Lab, we are discovering that there are a lot of mindless habits that go into eating, and also we’re finding that these mindless eating habits can easily be changed, not by education, but by essentially changing the environment.

Mindless eating habits can easily be changed, not by education, but by essentially changing the environment

Environmental Cues Influence Eating Choices

Environmental cues that influence food choices are all around us. For instance, just the size of a plate can alter how much you serve yourself. We found that on average, people end up serving about 22 percent more pasta on a twelve-inch plate then they do on a 10-inch plate. Four ounces of pasta on a ten-inch plate looks like a full plate of pasta, but on a twelve-inch plate, it doesn’t even look like an appetizer, so you plop down another big spoonful. Other environmental cues also influence how much we serve ourselves: how much the person next to us served themselves, lighting, and the size of a serving spoon. If we do not control these factors, they will almost assuredly nudge us into overeating.

Another factor that messes us up seems obvious, but it's not so obvious as it's happening: the convenience of food

Another factor that messes us up seems obvious, but it’s not so obvious as it's happening: the simple convenience of food. We found that if you move a candy dish from a person's desk to just six feet away, they end up eating about half the amount of candy. We asked whether this decrease was because it was hard to walk, but people provided another answer. It has nothing to do with the effort. The six feet gave people pause to ask themselves whether they were really that hungry, and half the time, they would answer “No”.

One of the most important questions when it comes to overeating is, "Do we really know when we're full?" There’s an adage that says we eat with our eyes, and not our stomachs. Let me ask you to think of the last time you were eating dinner. How did you know you were done eating dinner? Our studies with refillable soup bowls show that people keep eating until there’s a cue that it's time to stop. In a study with all-you-can-eat chicken wings, we found that a visual reminder of how much someone has eaten influences how much they eat. If the chicken bones are removed from the table as they are eating, people will eat 30 to 40 percent more than if the bones are left on the table. Further, if the waitress offers a free cookie after people are done with the wings, the presence of the chicken bones also influences this decision. If the bones had been left on the table, and the person can remember how much they ate, only about one in four people accept the cookie. However, if those bones have been bussed, about nine in ten people accept the cookie.

Studies with refillable soup bowls show that people keep eating until there’s a cue that it's time to stop

The public health policies that will make the biggest differences, I think, are not going to dictate what people are supposed to do. Rather, effective policies will be those of a local food service manager who says, "By golly, you know what I'm going to do? I'm going to put the healthiest food first." Then kids will have a better chance to choose that than the pizza, for instance. Or it's the policy of a parent who says, "You know, I'm going to make sure there's always a fruit bowl on the counter right next to the door instead of a potato chip bag." Health and wellness groups might have to say, "We're actually going to extend the school lunch period so the kids have a little bit longer to eat." These types of local, small ‘p’ policies will have a larger impact than any Policy dictating what people should do.

We don't just show there's a problem. Every study we've done, and everything NIH has supported, has a solution.

All of our work on food is focused on behavioral and social sciences and solutions to health problems. We don't just show there's a problem. Every study we've done, and everything the NIH has supported, has a solution. We come up with the solutions. We find a solve-able problem: The convenience of foods can influence how much people eat. Then, we come up with real-world practical solutions: Here are the easy steps to de-convenience the food—not to say “no” to yourself, but to de-convenience it. I think that's what the NIH has helped us do so well—helped us come up with solution-based research that helps people today and are things they can take home and change tonight as soon as they get back from work.

One of the things I've been so grateful for with the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research is the fact that they are looking at solutions, not just different ways to describe the problem. That's why I think they are so brilliant and they foreshadow incredible things to come for our nation and our health.

The Food and Brand Lab

The mission of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab is: “We change how food is purchased, prepared, and consumed. Using new tools of behavioral science, we invent healthy eating solutions for consumers, companies, and communities. We invent, redesign, and empower.” We invent solutions for companies to help consumers eat healthier (100-calorie packs, new products, new positioning, new markets). On a mass scale, we help redesign cafeterias, grocery stores, restaurants, homes, and workplaces to make it profitably easier for consumers to eat healthier. We empower consumers to make small changes and nudges that improve their eating habits and the health of their families. Each year we publish 20-plus new ideas in academic journals, and we appear in media around the world.

Additional Information

Brian Wansink's Cornell faculty page

Cornell Food and Brand Lab

Brian Wansink discusses his research on why we eat more than we think.

About the Author

Brian Wansink

Brian Wansink, Ph.D., Cornell University

Brian Wansink is a professor in and director of the famed Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, where he is a leading expert in changing eating behavior—both on an individual level and on a mass scale—using principles of behavioral science. He is the author of Mindless Eating and Slim by Design (which have been translated into over 25 languages) as well as over 200 peer-reviewed journal articles. From 2007 until 2009 he was appointed by the White House to be the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy & Promotion executive director in charge of the Dietary Guidelines for 2010 and the Food Guide Pyramid (MyPyramid.gov). He received his Ph.D. from Stanford University, and is a former bad open-mic comic and rock sax player. He lives with his wife and three girls in Ithaca, New York, where he enjoys both French food and French fries.

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