Mindless Eating (review)

Mindless Eating

Eating right is a long-term goal, eating better is something we can start today.

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think is really great. It’s not just prescriptive tactics (eat this, don’t eat that). It takes a bigger perspective, drawing on psychology and environmental influences, and suggests some guidelines with those pressures in mind. Smart, moderate changes over long periods of time.

There’s a double meaning in the title there: there’s “mindless eating” in the sense of the subconscious habits and tendencies we have around food (grazing, over-ordering, overeating, impulse purchases), and there’s “mindless eating” in the sense of re-writing those scripts and re-structuring our eating environments so that our choices about food are easier, healthier and more automatic in a smarter way. And since we make ~200 food decisions a day, relying on willpower alone is a recipe (ha!) for disaster.

Besides, deprivation diets don’t work. Our body and brain and environment tend to conspire against us. There are all kinds of signals and cues, both internal and external, that persuade us to keep eating. That brings us to what author Brian Wansink calls the “mindless margin”. We can only lose roughly half a pound per week without triggering our bodies’ metabolic alarms. It’s science. Lose weight more quickly, and your body panics a bit and starts compensating by being more stingy, storing more fats, etc. If 1 pound is ~3500 calories, we’re talking about cutting 1700 calories/week or 200-300 calories a day. Doable. At that amount, you basically won’t miss it. Slow and steady is the key.

With a modest goal in mind, the books explores a lot of the psychology and research behind eating, and comes up with some simple tactics. Many of these are great even if you’re not trying to lose weight, but just trying to maintain weight or get some better habits:

  • We tend to eat by volume, not by calories. So triple how much healthy stuff you put on your plate. Consider serving 20% less of the unhealthy stuff. You’ll tend to eat all that you serve and see in front of you, so get a head-start on setting a smart satisfaction point. Don’t cut the unhealthy entirely, immediately, because deprivation tends not to work and that’s no way to live, anyway.
  • See the food. Plate everything beforehand, and leave the serving dishes in the kitchen. Don’t clear away the refuse like chicken bones or corn cobs. You need a reminder of your progress through a meal.
  • Presentation counts. We eat more from bigger packages → Buy food in smaller packages. And dear God, don’t eat straight out of the box. We eat more from bigger dishes and silverware, and and drink more from shorter, wider glasses → Replace your dishes and silverware with smaller versions and get yourself some taller, narrower glasses.
  • We eat our expectations. We tend to think better-named products taste better. Those aren’t noodles, it’s Grandma’s Artisan Pesto alla Genovese. Would you rather have wine from Burgundy or Tallahassee? We eat what we think we eat. Remember this if you’re hosting a dinner, or if you’re the primary cook in your household. It’s salesmanship.
  • Beware variety. There’s a thing called sensory-specific satiety. You tend to get tired of one flavor or food item and stop eating. Introduce a new flavor(s), and it’s like getting a fresh new appetite. More variety, more consumption. That’s one reason why you overeat at buffets. Besides the fact that it’s really awesome sometimes.
  • Beware variety, part II. Since you’re gonna get bored with any flavor, remember you’ll get the most bang for your bite by ending dessert after a few forkfuls. Perhaps split one with the table.
  • Beware extra food. “Leftovers signal that you made too much—and probably ate too much—of the original meal.”
  • Beware visible food. We eat more of what we see (and think about) often. Apples and carrots go on the kitchen counter. Cookies go in the pantry. (Storytime!: I woke up one recent morning to find a cake on the kitchen counter. I walked past it about a dozen times that day, proud of my will to resist. Then I found myself in the kitchen at 1130 that night, staring at the platter, and sighed, knowing exactly what was about to happen. The next morning I draped a napkin over the cake stand. Haven’t touched it since.)
  • Beware eating scripts. The way you always do things. Do you eat cereal until you finish your magazine? Do you eat Peanut M&Ms until the TV show is over? Do you order a cheese plate basically every time you walk into Brick Store Pub because that’s what you do there? (Oh, me? Guilty on all counts…)
  • Beware distractions. TV. Books. Friends. These things pair well with just about every dish, and you’re pretty much guaranteed eat more and eat longer. Try pacing yourself with the slowest eater.
  • Welcome smart hassles. Leave food in the kitchen so you have to get up for a second serving. You’re much less likely to eat from the candy dish at the office if it’s tucked away in your desk drawer, or better yet, in the office kitchen. Maybe keep only one or two beers in the fridge, instead of the whole six-pack.

Great stuff. A couple other parts I appreciated…

  • I loved the observation that fast food places are designed for high turnover: bright lights, hard surfaces that do nothing to diminish noise, and high-contrast and high-arousal colors. I’d never put it all together.
  • One reason we tend to buy name brands, despite the added expense: “We like to remind ourselves that we’re not hopelessly cheap.”
  • When it comes to comfort foods, males tend to prefer meals like pizza, pasta, soup, etc. (Think: attention, being pampered, cared for). Females tend to prefer ice cream, cookies, etc. (Think: convenience, ease, time away from other people’s demands).
  • So simple, but kinda blew my mind: “Food companies don’t care if you eat the food, as long as you repeatedly buy it.”

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