Smart art of eating

Control freaks will be reluctant to hear Brian Wansink explaining how we think we’re a lot smarter than we are when it comes to food.

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When you’re eating a meal, how do you know when to stop eating? Being full is actually the least likely reason that you stop eating, according to behavioural economist Brian Wansink. The most likely reasons to stop eating are when your plate is empty or when everyone else is done, says Wansink. However, another common time to stop is when the television show being watched is over!

Wansink has specialised in researching how people eat for over 10 years. As head of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, he has executed over 500 experiments investigating the unconscious behaviours people exhibit while eating, mostly linking them to environmental influences.

His results are striking: People tend to eat more if the food label says “low-fat” or if the food has a “health halo” (like salad). People tend to eat more if they are driving, watching television or eating straight from the packet. People tend to eat more if the plates, bowls, forks and spoons are larger, and also drink more if the glasses are shorter and fatter.

Wansink has labelled this type of eating “mindless eating” and responded with a practical “behavioural design” approach. Through his Mindless Eating book he promotes a process of reverse engineering where his findings are flipped to make us mindlessly eat less and healthier. In other words, don’t eat while driving or watching TV, use smaller crockery and cutlery, and so forth. “The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on,” Wansink asserts.

Surely though, if we are aware of these factors, we can simply counter our mindless urges and eat mindfully? Wansink disagrees, explaining that the over 200 choices we make daily about our food is just too much for our conscious brains to always be in control. “If somebody has the time and willpower, and no distractions to be mindful, then it’s a good approach to use because you actually enjoy food a lot more. The trouble is that if you don’t have a lot of time, you have a lot to do and you don’t have great willpower, which is what the majority of the population is like, then you have to come up with another context, another solution,” he goes on.

More significantly though is just pure denial, says Wansink: “After all the experiments I have done, the result that still surprises me the most is that people, when shown how these cues around them influence them, deny that they have any affect. People can sometimes believe that these cues influence other people, but they can’t believe that they influence themselves.

“We don’t want to believe that we’re fooled by something as silly as the size of a bowl or the distance of the candy dish. We want to think that we’re smarter than that. We want to think that we’re informed, reasonable people. To all of a sudden have someone point out that you can’t even explain why you ate what you ate for breakfast, other than saying: “I like it”, throws a lot of people off. People want to believe not necessarily that they are mindful eaters, but that they know what’s influencing them. It’s the same with anything that points out a subtle influence on a person. If someone said that your child’s mood when you get up in the morning will influence what your mood is throughout the day, most people would deny it.”

The relevance of his findings to designers is palpable, but Wansink says that he would particularly like designers to read chapter six of his book in which he discusses the impact of packaging and presentation on what we eat: “The visual expectations of food tremendously biases consumer expectations of what it will taste like. Any bias like that can either push people into liking or disliking food, and should be used to help people enjoy healthier food with names and packaging that will make people expect it to taste great,” he explains.

Wansink has himself already been campaigning for healthier eating on a wider scale. He was appointed by President Barack Obama to lead and engage the federal agency responsible for the 2010 Dietary Guidelines. The guidelines are known to have considerable institutional and corporate impact; before the 2005 Dietary Guidelines recommendation, whole grain was an exclusive product compared to its current ubiquity. Wansink’s appointment also represents a radical change of attitudes: “It’s the first time that they’ve acknowledged behaviour rather than just saying ‘eat that’ or ‘don’t eat that’”.

The Smarter Lunchroom project also entails Wansink putting his research into practice. Again, following hours of field research observing people’s behaviour and choices in school canteens and at restaurant buffets, Wansink simply suggests a couple of design tweaks to unwittingly influence people’s food choices. Spatial designers take note: People tend to make healthier choices if they pay with cash, the fruit and vegetables are earlier in the queue and there is more variety, if the person in front of them does, if the salad bar is right at the checkout till… And more.

Of course, one has to ask the obvious question that he’s probably been asked in every interview: Does Wansink himself eat mindlessly or mindfully? The diplomat replies: “The one thing I’ve realised is that every decision you make about food, for most of us, can’t be a mindful or brilliant decision. What I’ve been able to do is set up my environment so that I do it much less than I otherwise would.”