The conventional wisdom regarding healthy eating is that education is king.
So long as people know to eat kale over Twinkies, they will stay away from unhealthy foods in favor of more nourishing ones.
Brian Wansink wants to tear that conventional wisdom to pieces.
Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University and author of “Slim By Design” and “Mindless Eating,” has three decades of research comprising more than 1,000 experiments under his belt — all of it convincing him that people eat the foods they do, in the quantities they do, based on how their eating environments are structured.
The more we can eliminate the many triggers that surround us, Wansink’s research has found, the healthier our lives will be.
Among his most illuminating findings:
- If someone at the head of a buffet line is overweight, the people behind that person will put more food on their plate.
- Diners eat 73% more soup when the bowl is secretly rigged to never run out. The adage that we eat with our eyes seems to hold true.
- Each home has a “nutritional gatekeeper” who ends up determining 72% of what people inside the home eat.
- People tend to pour 28% more liquid into short, wide glasses than tall, skinny ones.
- When people serve food onto a 12-inch plate, they portion out 22% more food than when they use a 10-inch plate.
- “Low-fat” labels tend to make people eat 16-23% more total calories.
Wansink has armfuls of these findings at the ready, and their implications run deep.
Two-thirds of the US population is overweight or obese. Death rates from heart disease are on the rise. The proportion of jobs requiring physical effort has plummeted from 50% in 1960 to just 20% today.
It’s not as if this grim reality is a secret. Every day people are bombarded by health messages telling them to eat less sugar and trans fat and exercise more. The fact is, people know they’re unhealthy — many think about it daily. But because of a flawed understanding of how to live healthy, knowledge doesn’t translate into action.
That’s why Wansink has made an active effort to ensure the insights don’t stay confined to a select group of academics in Ithaca, New York.
Between 2007 and 2009, he served as executive director of the USDA‘s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. His research into calorie consumption is widely credited as having sparked the 100-calorie pack craze, and he’s currently on a mission to bring his findings from the Food and Brand Lab into school lunchrooms across the country.
The old-school methods of abolishing candy and sugar-loaded drinks aren’t anywhere on the agenda. Wansink knows they’ll only breed resentment.
“You don’t take away the chocolate milk because that’s just going to create a riot,” he says. Instead you make it harder to reach the unhealthy stuff and easier to go with the nutritious alternative. “You make the healthy things seem more attractive, convenient, and normal.”
Wansink practices what he preaches. His latest book, “Slim by Design,” comes with a scorecard people can use to figure out if their homes nudge them toward a healthy lifestyle or a destructive one.
A recent self-imposed inventory of his own home conducted by Cornell researchers found a Slim-By-Design score of 81 out of 100, which is pretty good. That’s because any and all new discoveries in the lab eventually find their way into his personal life.
“When we discovered that people pour more into short, wide glasses than tall, skinny glasses, within two days we got rid of all the short, wide glasses in our lab,” he says. “Within the week I don’t think any of us had short, wide glasses in our homes.”
“Even if you show them videotapes of what they’re doing, they come up with some excuse of why it happens,” he says.
Wansink admits incorporating every little finding into your life would be unreasonable. His lab once found that very bright and very dimly lit spaces both promote over-eating, but that doesn’t mean people should rush out to their hardware store to buy paint.
“You can’t do everything perfect,” he says, “but you can do a lot of things fairly well.”
(In the event you are remodeling, the colors that will do your waistline the most good are neutral in tone, like earthy greens and brown. Wansink’s own kitchen is pumpkin-colored.)
Most of the advice he’d like to give to people concerns the small tweaks they can make to be slimmer by design: more fruit here, less candy there, staying mindful of who’s setting the pace at the dinner table. Even if the findings are correlational, there’s no real downside to such incidental adjustments.
“We’ve got a saying in our lab,” he said recently. “‘If you want to be skinny, do what skinny people do.'”
Consider his latest findings — that women who had breakfast cereal sitting on their counters weighed 20 lbs. more than their neighbors who didn’t, and those with soft drinks sitting out weighed 24-26 lbs. more. Meanwhile, women who had fruit bowls on their counters weighed 13 lbs. less.
Even if you take the soda and cereal off the counter and don’t lose weight, the outcome was likely still healthier than if you’d left them there and constantly faced temptation.
“If skinny people make their homes slim by design by clearing the counters of everything but the fruit bowl,” Wansink says, “it won’t hurt us to do the same.”
If you’re a snacker, Wansink says you should portion out the snack into a bowl and put the box away so you don’t constantly see it while you’re eating. You should also distract yourself with work or by getting a glass of water. In one 2013 study, people reported feeling equally satisfied by a small snack compared to one up to 10 times larger when they were polled 15 minutes after eating. The results suggested we may be misled by how hungry we really are, and all we need to do is wait.
If snacking isn’t a problem but you overeat during meals, Wansink says the easy solution is to serve foods from the stove instead of the table.
“They can still go back for seconds and thirds if they want to,” Wansink says, “but we find that guys eat about 26% less of any food that isn’t sitting directly on the table.” For women, the effect is smaller, only about 6%.
Whatever your vice may be, the call for added mindfulness is the same. Replacing a candy bowl with a fruit bowl will cause you to eat more fruit and less candy. Putting unhealthy treats further away will make you less likely to get up from your comfy sofa to fetch them. These are small but hugely important steps to building a healthy diet.
In 2007, Wansink found that people make approximately 250 decisions related to food each day. Those decisions drain our willpower, and changing our eating environment can help free up that decision-making ability to actually spend time living, not wasting our willpower on the choice between carrots or cookies.