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Mindless eating can be used to turn bad diet habits around

Dominika Osmolska Psy.D.'s picture
Healthy Diet

Psychologists have some good news for dieters. By making simple changes to your environment, you might be able to eat less without really thinking about it and improve your diet.

The problem, according to Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, is mindless eating combined with hidden eating traps such as large portions, large plates and even the shape of our plates. These hidden eating traps don't help to maintain healthy weight and a good diet.

"Most of us have too much chaos going on in our lives to consciously focus on every bite we eat, and then ask ourselves if we’re full. The secret is to change your environment so it works for you rather than against you," Wansink said in a presentation today (Aug. 5) at the American Psychological Association's annual meeting.

For example, in a study of 168 moviegoers, Wansink and colleagues found people ate 45 percent more popcorn out of extra-large containers than out of large ones. Container size was even a stronger influence than the taste of the food: Study participants eating stale popcorn out of extra- large containers ate 34 percent more than those eating fresh popcorn out of large containers.

Unfortunately, your stomach doesn't always let your brain know that you have overindulged. To prove the point, consider Wansink’s next experiment. He and his colleagues designed bottomless bowls which continually refill with soup from a source under the table. Wansink found that people eat 73 percent more soup from these bowls than they did from regular bowls. However, they didn't realize they had eaten more.

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Many people gauge their level of fullness by an empty plate, rather than a full stomach, said Wansink, author of the book, "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think." The more they saw, the more they ate.

"People don't think that something as simple as the size of a bowl would influence how much an informed person eats," said Wansink. Wansink suggests that this type of mindless eating is one of the contributors to unhealthy eating habits and unnecessary weight gain. It is certainly at work in eating out in restaurants, where plates and portion sizes can border on the ginormous. In my observations, people also feel obligated to finish all the food on their plates by reason of not wanting to waste food.

But that same mechanism of mindless eating can also be used to "mindlessly eating better," Wansink said.

Some strategies he suggests to improve your diet

• Eat meals off of salad plates instead of dinner plates.
• Store healthy foods at eye level in the cupboard and refrigerator and keep unhealthy foods out of sight.
• Don't eat in front of the TV, but instead in your dining room or kitchen.

Participants in one of Wansink 's studies lost up to 2 pounds a month once they made these modifications.

"These simple strategies are far more likely to succeed than willpower alone. It’s easier to change your environment than to change your mind," Wansink said.

Cutting trips to restaurant venues might go a long way, too.