December 1, 2007 A food psychologist has found that people overeat unconsciously, due to numerous factors. Studies show that larger plates result in larger servings. Also, watching television while eating leads to people eating 40 percent more food.
America is a nation of over-eaters. But according to one food expert, the reason we eat too much is all in our heads.
Busy lifestyles cause many people to over-eat without noticing. A problem Brian Wansink, Ph.D., a behavioral scientist at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, calls "mindless eating."
“We’re a nation of mindless eaters. We do so many things during the day that when it comes to food we can just nibble and nibble and nibble, and eat and eat and eat.” Dr. Wansink said.
Dr. Wansink says the mind is to blame for over eating, not always the stomach. And just choosing a different plate could stop over indulgence.
“Our studies show the bigger the plate is, the more people serve, typically to the level of about 25 to 28 percent more,” Dr. Wansink said.
Six ounces of pasta on an eight-inch plate, looks normal. But that same serving on a bigger plate barely looks like an appetizer -- causing many people to dish out more. “The best way to mindlessly eat less is to get rid of your large plates, or get rid of your large serving bowls,” Dr. Wansink said.
Distracted television viewers also don’t pay attention to what’s in front of them. Studies show over 40 percent more food is eaten while watching TV.
“We often end up eating more because we simply eat to the pace of the program, or we eat until the program is over.” Dr. Wansink said.
Brian has made a career watching how people behave around food. His best advice? Don’t be fooled by hidden dangers of food and packaging.
BACKGROUND: Brian Wansink is a food psychologist at Cornell University who focuses on the how and why people eat. For instance, he can tell you if you get more beer from a tall skinny glass or a short fat glass. His Food and Brand Lab tries to help people eat more nutritiously and to help control how much they eat. An additional focus is on increasing the acceptance of soy foods and the consumption of fruits and vegetables. He oversees a series of test kitchens, restaurants and cooperating grocery stores to understand how consumers “choose and use” foods.
SIZE (AND SHAPE) MATTERS: Wansink and his colleagues conducted two studies of 167 people demonstrating that both children and adults pour and consume more juice when given a short, wide glass compared to those given a tall, narrow glass – although they believed the opposite to be true. Those with the short wide glasses poured 76% more juice than those with the tall slender glasses. The bias is caused by a visual illusion known as the vertical-horizontal illusion: we tend to focus on heights instead of widths, so we are more likely to over-pour into wide glasses while thinking we poured very little because of the shorter height.
FAT-FREE ISN’T CALORIE-FREE: Wansink has also found that people will eat more of a snack – even one they don’t like very much – if it is labeled “low fat.” IN fact, low-fat cookies, for example, only have about 30% fewer calories than regular cookies, while low-fat granola only has 12% fewer calories. In one study, people given low-fat granola ate 35% more – 192 extra calories – than those who thought they were eating regular granola. The low-fat label leads people to mindlessly overeat a product, while believing they are being “health-conscious.” Wansink’s advice: if you’re going to indulge, eat something you truly enjoy – just eat half as much of it.
SEE WHAT YOU EAT: The human stomach isn’t designed to keep accurate track of how much we have eaten. In fact, it takes about 20 minutes after we eat before our stomachs register that we are “full.” Visual cues are critical to controlling our much we eat, according to Wansink. Students participating in an all-you-can-eat chicken wing buffet ate continually if their tables were continually cleared, because they couldn’t see how many they’d already consumed. Here’s a handy tip for your next buffet: people who put everything on their plate before they sit down to eat – including dessert – eat about 14% less than people who take smaller amounts and go back for seconds or thirds. He also advises people not to eat snacks out of the box; put it into a separate dish and leave the box in the kitchen. You will eat less if you can see how much you’ve already eaten.
Editor's Note: This article is not intended to provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.