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October 18-24, 2006

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The Anti-Diet Diet

By Stett Holbrook

'I'VE NEVER been on a diet, unless you count the week I ate nothing but barbecued ribs and brisket a diet. But if I ever feel the need to lighten up, I'm going straight to Brian Wansink's great new book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam; 288 pages; $25 cloth). I interviewed Wansink last year for a story I wrote on food phobias. He's a professor of marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University, where he conducts fascinating research on eating behavior at the school's "food and brand lab."

Mindless Eating is probably not going to make him popular with the peddlers of the latest fad diets or America's supersized food industry, because it lays bare many of the tricks the food industry plays on us to get us to eat more, and the flaws in many popular diets. It also highlights the tricks our minds play on us that lead to overeating.

What kind of tricks?

  • Three studies have shown that "low-fat" diets may lead people to eat more and consume as much as 14 percent more than regular fat food. When we think we're eating less, we end up eating more.
  • Size matters. In an experiment at a movie theater, Wansink offered customers free containers of popcorn and sodas if they'd answer a few questions after the movie. For purposes of his experiment, people were given popcorn in two different sizes: medium and extra large. Even though the popcorn used in the experiment was five days old, people ate it anyway and most interestingly, the people with the larger containers ate an average of 53 percent more than those given the smaller containers. And more interesting still, participants who received the larger container said the size of the popcorn didn't affect how much they ate. But it did. They didn't eat the popcorn because it tasted good (it was deliberately given to them stale). They ate it because of the cues around them like the size of the container. Wansink calls that "mindless eating." "People eat more when you give them bigger containers," Wansink says. "Period."
  • Appearance affects what we eat. Studies of over 250 people showed that people think a brownie on a nice plate not only tastes better, but is worth twice as much as the same brownie served on a napkin.
  • All the deception, tricks and self-delusion out there can make eating well difficult. But Wansink says rigid diets or laborious calorie counting are not the answer. We just need to open our eyes, become more mindful of what we eat and make small adjustments in diet. Without sacrificing or forbidding ourselves to eat the food we love, Wansink suggests small changes like filling half your dinner plate with vegetables, buying food in smaller containers or simply eating a piece of fruit before indulging in a snack can go a long way toward more thoughtful eating—and fewer pounds.

    "We may not be able to outlaw every drive-through restaurant or tax every pint of ice cream in our community, but we can re-engineer our personal food environment to help us and our families eat better," Wansink concludes.

    That's a diet I could live with.

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