You’ve got bad eating habits if you use a grocery cart in 7-Eleven.
– Dennis Miller

Brian Wansink is a professor in the fields of Consumer Behavior and Nutritional Science at Cornell University. He heads the Food and Brand Lab there which does some very exciting work on what we eat, why, how much and in what surroundings. They have demo restaurants, cafeterias and other eatery settings to carry out experiments on food consumption behavior. I had been following the publications by Dr. Brian and his fellow researchers, I finally got my hands on his best selling book : “Mindless Eating“. A very informative and yet entertaining work, encompassing various research experiments performed at the Food and Brand Lab and elsewhere. The author’s stint as a Stand Up comic doesn’t hurt the readability of the book.

I always approach books on dietary issues with caution, to be truthful I don’t touch them with a barge pole. The restatement of the obvious with an overuse of terms like fresh, healthy, diet, will power and control doesn’t make for very promising reading, let alone translating it into a lifestyle. But the actual scientific and research credentials of the author in this case prompted me to read this book. Ours are times plagued by and partially obsessed with, obesity. The era of excess that ensued not many decades back has had a huge chunk of the populous consuming much more than their bodies get to spend in terms of work. Obesity is not stemming in cultures of inactivity alone but also in situations where the available food options to people with limited resources are often unhealthy ones. With an increasing number of excessively and dangerously humongous persons on the planet, now is as good a time as any to re-examine one’s own food choices. I shall try to iterate over the general idea of the work while still leaving you enough incentive to read the book.

Eating Crap

How often do we find ourselves eating leftovers, potentially unhealthy snacks which don’t even taste that good but we eat them just because they are readily available? Perhaps the most relevant example for this is the large amount of snack items available through vending machines, on free buffets of for sale at subsidized rates in offices. As the MNCs in India have grown so has their desire to keep their employees occupied in office. Bags of wafers and chips with sub standard muffins and truly ghastly baked goods are picked up with gusto by frustrated overtime workers who’d eat anything to keep their mind off the latest code issue.

Dieticide

I know no one who has in his or her lifetime not tried to control what they eat. Whether it be to fit into a favorite dress, reduce LDL or just look more in shape, people diet. The author suggests that nearly all of our dietary plans include the deprivation of some food substance which is other wise highly desirable. This invariably leads to the caving in of the strongest of wills and thus most plans for food control fail. He suggests that instead of cutting off ice cream, substitution or restraint might be a better idea. A small cup instead of a large, plain vanilla instead of a banana split, might just save your diet from throttling itself.

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Perceiving how much you eat

How do we decide how much is enough? In scenarios where you dine at, all you can eat places and food keeps pouring how do you decide that you have had enough, how far away from actually satiation is that moment? Dr. Wansink and his team conducted an experiment on young students during a superbowl game. Everyone was served chicken wings, although the bones were cleared off only from certain tables. The skeletal remains of fowls on their tables acted as visual cues to these eaters and they stopped early on as compared to those who had their tables cleared. We rely on such cues everyday for every meal. Another interesting experiment was the one with the bottomless soup bowl.

A number of candidates were offered soup, some of the bowls however were rigged with apparatus to refill them slowly. A considerably extra amount of soup was consumed by people whose bowls were being secretly filled. If everyone was to stop when full such differences wouldn’t be obvious. The fact is that despite decades of existence and thousands of meals eaten we still can’t tell when we are full. The book illustrates that the size of crockery, shapes of plates and serving spoon volumes have a considerable influence on how much we eat. An interesting comparison is showcased using a Highball glass and a tumbler. Even seasoned barmen and mixologists when pouring without measuring tend to pour more in tumblers than in taller glasses, the illusion of volume being perpetuated by height.

Convenience & Salience

Look at the food that you eat daily, what determines you food choice? One undeniable factor is surely what is available, what is convenient. How many of the drones that sweat it out in large corporations hankered for coffee multiple times a day before beginning work? While coffee drinking might be a social activity and also part of the uniform of certain professions , there is one undeniable fact, coffee machines are conveniently placed in offices so that employees may keep themselves awake. So we then get a tendency to replace other consumption needs with coffee.

Then there is salience, just by virtue of their presence and being obvious certain items demand consumption. Extra packets of cereal bought as part of a sale, boxes of sweets and chocolates omnipresent during a festival season or just a basket of bread laid out on a restaurant table as you wait for your food. These food stuffs somehow exert forces on our hands to pick them up. The reason  you might be increasing in girth might be something as simple as you walking past a bakery everyday to work. It becomes difficult not to walk in.

Eating Scripts & Social Eating

The Family that eats together always, keeps eating.
The Family that eats together always, keeps eating.

There are situations where our eating is involuntary, where we eat to get past to another step. To me an obvious example is that of the fast growing all you can eat buffets around town. Indians love their food and we have begun eating out more than we did say 10 years ago. While buffets were generally reserved for weddings now they are fast out pacing the more traditional Ala carte restaurants. Variety and quantity along with considerable value for money being the obvious justifications for such consumer choices. However once you visit such a place they start with appetizers, delivered at your table. A good dozen or so of them. They are meaty, succulent, juicy, spciy, fried and fatty. You hog as much as you can and still head towards the buffet. These meals often comprise of 4-5000 calories at a time and you by all definitions are full , when you pick up the plate for the dinner buffet. Still we eat, even if a little. For that’s how the scenario is scripted for us now. We follow repeating patterns even in eating situations.

A study in the book shows that people tend to eat much more when there is company present than when there is not. In fact how much you eat can be a function of the number of people around you, well that is assuming that you like all of them. This idea is driven by the notion that we eat at our own pace but for the time it takes the slowest eater on the table to finish. If you aren’t the slowest you simply keep stuffing yourself till everyone is ready to get up.

Comfort Foods & Rewards

 While sugary, sweet and fatty foods often find themselves labeled as comfort food, like any other thing you eat its a matter of taste. I wrote an article earlier based on the paper by the same author on Comfort Food. The gist is that what is comfort food is determined by various parameters like age, gender and economic status. Food also comes up as a reward for various chores you do as a kid or doing your homework on time. There is proposition that we have a tendency to reward ourselves as grown ups too. Do a day of good work, get yourself a doughnut and so on. The book speaks briefly about the use of food as such and how you can replace your rewards with healthier substitutes early on.

What can be done

As many of us are becoming calorie counters there are things which we need to consider. The access to a large number of online resources on various diets and health plans can lead to a confused and very hungry person. Wansink points out that going on a Subway Diet or a salad regime is not enough. Many of these branded institutions provide diet charts for the stuff they sell. If you look closely, that extra addition of mayo or Honey Mustard with a Hearty Italian bread might make your Sub as deadly as a big Mac. There is talk about the responsibility of organisations in the clear representation of the nutritional breakup of the food items they sell. The lack of clear information at many a restaurants is a big problem as customers consume more than their daily requirement of calories in one meal and remain oblivious to the fact that they did so. From a glass of homemade chocolate milk with 3.5%  fat to a pack of digestive biscuits from McVitties, people remain unaware of how much they consume. While in a culture where manual labor is common place hunger and a need for calories drives eating habits, ours come more from taste.

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The book speaks about how no fast food company is in the business of making you fat. They are in the business of making what sells. If fat sells then that’s what they peddle. A change in the public attitude is what the author suggests to bring a change in our eating options. Nutritional Gatekeepers is a term that pops up in the book referring to the food decision makers of a household. Every house has one, mostly its the mother but it could be the father,  a spouse in a couple or even a flatmate in a shared bachelor pad. These people go to the supermarket, figure out deals and coupons and decide the menu of the house on a monthly or weekly basis. While they might not even do the cooking by choosing the raw ingredients they determine directly, the health of their family.

The word diet is not a regulatory word, it simply means “What an organism consumes” This book is fine way to change this type of a diet. One which is not inhibitory but simply involves increased awareness about what and how much you put in your abdomen. We have migrated from lifestyles which determined our calorie intake to uncontrolled manners of consuming originating from an era of excess. With an introduction to some of the basic popular diets out there with their PROS and CONS and a set of FAQs, this book is a worthy addition to any kitchen or food lover’s library.

Eat when hungry, stop as soon as full. This book can help your mind start thinking of eating responsibly.

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