A synopsis of Brian Wansink’s: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think

I just finished reading an excellent paperback by Brian Wansink, PhD, entitled: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.  This book offers some very practical and useful advice, so I thought I would summarize it for the benefit of those who do not have the time or the inclination to read the entire book.

Allow me to segue into the synopsis by starting with a short story.  Yesterday morning I stopped at the International Food Market to pick up a few items.  I wasn’t hungry when I walked in, but the sight and scent of a smorgasbord of interesting foods literally made my juices flow.  In accordance with the seminal work of Ivan Pavlov, even thinking of food makes us hungry as the salivary glands start secreting saliva and the pancreas starts secreting insulin.  When I arrived home, I was compelled to have a mid-morning snack, and there was just no getting around it.  All the mindfulness in the world wasn’t going to stop my noshing and it is Brian Wansink’s overarching thesis in his book that if we want to change our eating habits and behaviors, it is simply easier to change our environment than our minds.  If I really didn’t want to trigger my snack attack, perhaps I shouldn’t have gone food shopping in mid-morning—it is always better to go grocery shopping after a meal!

Wansink distinguishes between physical hunger and emotional hunger.  Physical hunger is gradual, perceived in our stomachs, occurs hours after eating a meal and disappears when we are full; the eating experience when physically hungry is quite satisfying for most of us.  On the other hand, emotional hunger is acute, occurs in our mind, is unrelated to how long ago we ate our previous meal, often persists after eating and may unleash secondary emotions including guilt and shame.

Mindless eating—eating without careful scrutiny and deliberation—is a powerful force because we are often unaware it is happening and most of the time we are not cognizant of the quantity of food that we are consuming.  Simply stated, our stomachs are bad at math and we don’t get much help from our attention or memory.  If we could see what we have eaten, we would probably eat less than we do. Wansink designed an experiment in which one group of people were given a standard serving of soup vs. a second group that were given a specially rigged “bottomless” soup bowl; interestingly, the former group consumed an average of 9 ounces vs. the latter group’s 15 ounces!  The moral is that many of us just do not know when to stop eating unless given external cues, such as a distinct portion that is served or observation of how much others in our dining group our consuming.

If we think we are Masters of our food choices, it is merely an illusion.  Our food preferences are predicated upon our habits, which can be both inherited and conditioned.  Most of us know that fruit and veggies are good for us and fast and processed foods are bad for us, but we file this information under “things we know and choose to ignore.” Our lives are full of eating “scripts”—habits that are an automated series of instructions carried out in a specific order such as the conditioned ritual of turning on the television, sitting in our favorite spot, salivating in Pavlovian fashion, and responding by arising to get popcorn and candy.  A typical breakfast script is reading the newspaper and refilling the cereal bowl until we are finished reading.  A common dinner script might be finishing the food on our plate and eating additional helpings until the others family members are done. Television and other forms of distracted dining, e.g., eating while driving (dashboard dining) are particularly dangerous because we really don’t heed the quantity of food consumed nor how long we have eaten for.

We tend to overeat because there are signals that tell us to eat, and it is not in our nature to pause after every bite and contemplate whether we’re full.  Culture wise, most Americans stop eating when achieving fullness as opposed to leaner cultures that stop eating when they are no longer hungry.  Okinawans subscribe to the premise of hara hachi bu, defined as eating until 80% full.  Studies have shown that French women pay more attention to internal cues like fullness as opposed to American women who, although regarding their sense of fullness, pay more heed to external cues such as the level of soup in a bowl.

We consume more from bigger packages, whatever the food; the same is true with bigger dishes, bowls and spoons—the size of a bag or bottle tells us what we think a serving size should be. Since our brains tend to over-focus on height of objects at expense of width, a short/fat glass will typically result in 20% more poured than tall/thin glass.  We tend to consume more if our expectations regarding the food quality are greater (halo effect); on the other hand, if our expectations are less, our enjoyment is less and we tend to eat less (shadow effect).  We eat more when there is more variety to choose from, hence beware the all-you-can-eat buffet. Premeditative eaters eat more than impulsive eaters (the more we think about eating, the more we eat). We tend to eat more food if it is advertised as “low fat” or “healthy.”  Pause points, such as internal sleeves in packaged goods, tend to interrupt our eating and give us the chance to decide if we want to continue; so those internal sleeves in cookie packages really do serve a purpose.

Clearly, based upon our poor ability to lose weight and maintain that loss, diets are not effective for the vast majority of people and there are some very good reasons for this.  Diets are depriving, discouraging and demoralizing—our body, brain and environment fights against deprivation; metabolic changes occur with starvation that slow our metabolisms and thwart the weight loss; denial yields cravings causing the foods we don’t bite to come back to bite us.  The good news is that the same forces that lead us to mindlessly gain weight can help us mindlessly lose weight. Habit can defeat the tyranny of the moment.  Wansink’s premise is to re-engineer our environment and eating habits so that we can eat enjoyably and mindfully without guilt and weight gain. His mantra is: the best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.  The same levers that cause weight gain can be pushed to slowly promote weight loss—unknowingly.  If we don’t realize we’re eating a little less than we need, we don’t feel deprived.  If we don’t feel deprived, we’re less likely to backslide and overeat to compensate.  The key is the mindless margin—the zone in which we can slightly overeat or under eat without being aware of it.  By heeding this mindless margin, we can trim 100-200 calories/day easily and unknowingly.

So, we don’t notice 100-200 calorie difference and can trim these calories easily and unknowingly and thus mindlessly eat better.  Helpful strategies include food tradeoffs: I can eat x if I do y, for example, I can eat dessert if I exercise.  Other helpful strategies include food policies including, for example: 20% less; no second helpings of starch; never eat at work desk; only eat snacks without wrappers; no bagels on weekdays; half desserts, etc.


Analogous to public health measures that function to improve our health by re-engineering our environment with respect to sidewalks, bike lanes, parks, limiting fast food facilities, Wansink offers a number of re-engineering solutions for improving our home environment and eating habits that can help stem mindless eating:

•Pre-plate entrees and snacks so we know precisely the amount we will be eating

•Control our “tablescape” or it will control us: smaller plates, utensils, packages; slender glasses to keep us slender; the fewer side dishes and bowls put on the table, the less that will be consumed

•Principle of invisibility—we eat more when food is placed in transparent wrap rather than in tin foil (out of sight, out of mind/in sight, in mind); as an extension, display healthy foods, hide unhealthy foods

Convenience principle: the more hassle it is to eat, the less will be eaten: shelled vs. unshelled nuts; chopsticks vs. standard utensils

Salience (conspicuous) principle: huge, warehouse multi-pack containers get in the way and beg to be eaten and pared down, so don’t buy them

•Change “eating scripts” from weight gain scripts to weight loss scripts: re-script dinner—start last, pace w/slowest eater, leave some food on plate, decide how much to eat before meal

•Recognize that when we eat with others, we will eat more

•Volume trumps calories—we eat the volume we want, not the calories we want; the two cheapest ingredients we can add to food are water and air

•Serve entrée but put salad and veggies family style in middle of table

•De-convenience tempting foods: back of refrigerator, top of pantry, etc.

•Eat before shopping, use list, stick to perimeter

•Split entrée; have half pre-packed to take home; have two appetizers in lieu of entrée; 2 bites of dessert (the best part of dessert is the first two bites)

•Distract yourself before you snack

•Don’t deprive ourselves—allow comfort foods, but eat in smaller amounts; rewire comfort foods—instead of cookies, candy, chips, cake, try small bowl of ice cream with strawberries

•For lunch and dinner, half of the plate should be veggies and fruit, the other half protein and starch

Andrew Siegel, M.D.

Author of Promiscuous Eating: Understanding and Ending Our Self-Destructive Relationship with Food. www.PromiscuousEating.com


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