Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink








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I didn’t know that there were food psychologists until I read Brian Wansink’s new book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Wansink claims that we make about 200 food related decisions every day, and most of them involve receiving outside influences that we fail to notice. By paying attention to one or two of these influences, some eating habits can be revised to improve health. Given how many diet books are sold, and how many readers hate dieting but do it anyway, the research that Wansink presents here allows readers to take a different approach to understanding nutrition and the process of eating. Here’s an excerpt, from the end of Chapter 7, “In the Mood for Comfort Food,” pp. 156-161:


Do You Save the Best for Last?


At dinnertime do you eat your favorite foods first or do you tend to save the best for last? The world is divided in half on this issue. We discovered why, but quite accidentally.

The story started when we teamed up with Peter Todd and other behavioral scientists from the Max Planck Insti­tutes in Germany to determine how people evaluate an over­all collection of foods (a meal) where the food is uneven (a great appetizer, but a terrible entrée). We thought the an­swer could provide a key to how our eating patterns have evolved over the past 100 years and might explain why the dinner plate is clean and the salad bowl is not.

Our hypothesis was that when we eat a number of foods in a row our overall evaluation of them will be biased by either the first food or the last. Psychologists refer to this as the power of primacy and recency. That is, our judg­ment of a meal is biased by our first impression or our last impression. If the middle courses, like the entrée or side dishes, fall short, that should matter less.

If true, this would also be useful knowledge for time-stressed chefs or for the weekend cook who has invited six neighbors over for dinner. If you impress them with your appe­tizer or dessert, you don’t have to worry so much about the food in the middle.

To test this theory, we decided to start with convenient, inexpensive snacks. If it didn’t work with snacks, it proba­bly wouldn’t work with entrées and appetizers. To find a wide range of snacks that Americans were likely to find ei­ther good or bad, we scoured Chicago’s Chinatown until my Jeep was filled with unusual treats from China, Korea, Viet­nam, Japan, and Thailand. We didn’t want familiar brands that would already have strong associations for our eaters, but some of the snacks were types that Americans might like, such as hard candy and fruit-based snacks. Then there were the others, like seaweed candy and blood cake.

We arranged 12 huge bowls of these snacks and invited 183 hungry students in for a late-afternoon “snack buffet.” First we asked them to rank-order all 12 snacks from what they thought would be their favorite down to their least fa­vorite. Then we dished up their favorite, their least favorite, and one toward the middle (their sixth favorite). We told them they could have as many snacks as they wanted, but before they could have additional snacks, they had to eat these three. This is when the weeping and the gnashing of teeth began.

Almost everyone reluctantly agreed to continue with the study and to eat the three snacks. After they finished, we asked them to rate their overall experience (on a 1—100 point scale), along with some questions about their back­ground and their childhood. We expected that people who ate their least favorite choice first or last would like the ex­perience less than those who ate it in the middle.

This did not happen. Their ratings appeared almost random. There was nothing interesting—no patterns, no insights. It was a waste of $1,100 of snack food and about 175 of hours of planning, shopping, feeding, cleaning up, and data analysis.

This was nothing new; more than half our studies don’t come out as gracefully as we hypothesize.12 We’re used to going back to the drawing board, finding what went wrong, and running the study a different way. This time, however, our return to the drawing board turned up something we had overlooked: almost nobody ate either their favorite food or their least favorite food in the middle. They seemed to use one of two “eating strategies.” They either “saved the best for last” or “ate the best one first.”

When we looked again at the questionnaires they had completed, we discovered that people who ate the best one first often shared one of two characteristics: they either grew up as a youngest child or came from large families.

The people most likely to save the best for last, on the other hand, had grown up as an only child or as the oldest. They could afford to save their favorite foods as a reward, knowing it would still be waiting for them at the end of the meal. It’s different for children in big families, particu­larly if they’re not the oldest. There is competition for food, even when there’s plenty to eat. If you don’t eat your favorite foods first, you might lose out altogether. Get it while you can.

In the end, our childhood eating habits can follow us for years. If a child becomes conditioned to eat their favorite foods first, they might develop the long-term eating habit of filling up on the high-calorie goodies at the expense of the healthier salads, fruits, and vegetables. That is a recipe for obesity.

Each February, everyone in my Lab volunteers to serve free meals in local soup kitchens, such as the Salvation Army’s. Although every person eating there has a different story, one thing they all have in common is that they’re hungry. A second thing that many have in common is the order in which they eat their foods and the order in which they get their plates refilled: favorites first. This almost always trans­lates into eating the high-calorie foods first, and the salads, fruits, and vegetables last (if at all).

We have just begun our food-order project, but in com­bination with our soup kitchen experiences, it’s made the people in my Lab uneasy. Once habits are formed, like eat­ing the more caloric food first, how easy are they to change? Let’s say that all of the fruits and vegetables in a low-income neighborhood suddenly become fresh and affordable— maybe even free—would that make a difference in what people actually ate? Or would they still fill up on the high­calorie foods?

If a boy grew up not knowing when or what the next meal would be, he would be smart to “eat the best first” any chance he got. The problem with this strategy arises years later when food is more plentiful and he is deciding between a pepperoni pizza or a salad. Being ingrained with fears of food scarcity might mean the pizza disappears without the salad being touched.

Food associations can last for a lifetime. What went on at the dinner table 30 (or even 50) years ago affects us now. We can mindfully override these tendencies, but they still persist when we slip back into mindless eating.


Reengineering Strategy #7: Make Comfort Foods More Comforting


The dieting strategy of saying “I’ll never eat fried chicken or ice cream again in my life” is destined for failure. Comfort foods help make life enjoyable. The key is learning how to have your cake and eat it too.


·        Don’t deprive yourself. One reason many diets fail before they even really gain momentum is that they deprive us of the food and lifestyle we enjoy. They also require us to forgo our typical way of life and to focus on calories and on resisting genera­tions of evolution and billions of dollars of food marketing. The best way to begin changing habits is to do so in a way that doesn’t make you feel de­prived: keep the comfort foods, but eat them in smaller amounts. Our studies also show that most people have at least some comfort foods that are rea­sonably healthy. Small doses take you a long way.

·        Rewire your comfort foods. If your comfort foods consist mainly of the four c’s—cookies, can­dies, chips, and cake—all is not lost. Just like the Chinese graduate student who developed American comfort-food favorites in her 20s, we can rewire our comfort foods. The key is to start pairing healthier foods with positive events. Instead of celebrating a personal victory or smothering a defeat with the “death by chocolate” ice cream sundae, try a smaller bowl of ice cream with fresh strawberries. It’s not a big sacrifice, and before long it will start to inch up your “favorites” list.


The research experiments that Wansink and his team conducted at Cornell and the University of Illinois provide instructive and entertaining reading. Based on this research, Mindless Eating proves that small efforts can produce big results, when one pays attention.


Steve Hopkins, March 23, 2007



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the April 2007 issue of Executive Times


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