Why is there an obesity epidemic? It’s not because we eat the wrong things or we lack exercise.
Research shows that, plain and simple, most of us just eat too much:
That’s hardly shocking.
But what’s interesting is there’s a way to fix this that doesn’t involve exercise or being deprived of your favorite foods.
No, this is not some silly pitch for low carb, low fat, Crossfit or the magical supplement of the week. Actually, it’s about psychology.
Brian Wansink is a Cornell researcher who studies how we eat. He was appointed by the White House to head up changes to US Dietary Guidelines.
He’s also the author of two fascinating books:
In the course of his research, Brian realized something pretty interesting:we eat for lots of reasons — but usually not because of hunger.
We are slaves to context. We eat because friends are around, because something’s free, because it’s in reach, because things are tasty, etc.
We respond to “food cues” over feelings. What we see is usually more important than what we actually eat. And Wansink wanted to prove this.
One of the things that makes his research so clever is that he’s sneaky.
(If you have the choice of trusting what a used car salesman says or what a psychology researcher tells you before a study, go with the car salesman.)
Wansink rigged bowls to be “bottomless.” A hidden tube made sure that no matter how much soup a subject ate, the bowl would not empty.
Then he fed people. What happened? People with normal bowls ate 15 ounces. Some with the rigged bowls more than a quart.
Except at extremes, what made people “full” was their eyes, not their stomachs. If the bowl didn’t look empty, they kept eating.
Wansink realized that you can increase or decrease the number of calories someone eats by 20% without them realizing.
He calls this the “mindless margin.” And over a year it can easily cause you to gain or lose ten pounds.
Can you see where I’m going with this?
Yes, we’re slaves to context. But that can be a good thing. By manipulating our environment we can drop 10 pounds (or more) without even noticing it.
So what do we need to do? Here are 6 insights from Wansink’s research that can make getting in shape much, much easier and nearly mindless.
1) Change What’s Visible
You don’t have to throw all that tasty junk food in the trash. But you do have to make sure it’s not sitting out, calling to you all day.
Wansink studied how slim people behave at buffets vs what heavy people do. What was one of the differences?
Slim people were more likely to sit facing away from the buffet, while chubbier people were 3x more likely to sit looking at it.
Brian’s Syracuse study revealed that just by looking at what food was visible in a home he could predict what someone weighs.
Do you have fruit sitting out visibly in your house? You probably weigh 8lbs less than your neighbor who doesn’t.
Have cookies or chips sitting out? You probably weigh 8lbs more.
Have breakfast cereal sitting out? You probably weigh 19lbs more.
Have soda sitting out? You’re going to weigh, on average, 25lbs more than someone who doesn’t.
Brian discusses it at 55:30 of this video:
(To learn what to eat if you want to look sexier, click here.)
Okay, you’ve hidden the food. But what about when you’re eating? You have to bring the food out then, right?
2) Change What’s Reachable
Brass tacks here, people: Make eating more food a hassle.
Keeping serving dishes off the table reduced how much men ate by 29%.
Remember the people at the buffet? Heavy people, on average, sat 16 feet closer to all that delicious food than skinny people did.
Got candy on your desk at work? That’s probably a double digit increase in your weight, right there.
What happened when Google put M&M’s in containers instead of out in the open? People ate 3 million less of them in one month.
(For more on how to build good habits, click here.)
Food is hidden and you’ve made overeating a hassle. But what if that’s not enough?
3) Plan Ahead
The skinny people at the buffet looked at everything, made a plan and then grabbed their food.
The heavy people just dove right in.
Shopping while hungry is a cardinal sin. It doesn’t make us buy more, it just makes us buy junk.
Anything that distracts us causes us to eat more because we aren’t paying attention to how much we’re eating. TV is especially bad here.
Guess what’s more effective than exercise when trying to drop those extra pounds? Merely reading food labels:
And what personality trait best predicts obesity? Being impulsive:
Our environment calls to us and if you’re not thinking before you’re acting, your surroundings had better be arranged properly.
(For more on how to increase willpower and self-control, click here.)
We’re making progress but is there any important advice on how to eat? Yup.
4) Slow Down
The heavy people at the buffet chewed 12 times per mouthful. The skinny people chewed an average of 15 times.
Research shows eating slower gives time for the “fullness” signal to kick in:
How long does the fullness signal take to do its job? About 20 minutes.
Problem is, the average American meal today doesn’t even last 20 minutes.
The same amount of food can make you full or still hungry entirely depending on how quickly you eat it, so slooooooow down.
(For more on why your relationship with food is so crazy, click here.)
Nobody likes to have to avoid their favorite foods so what’s an easier thing to avoid that can have big results?
5) Variety Is Not The Spice Of Weight Loss
This is one of the reasons we overeat at buffets: we want to try everything.
Give people three options and they eat 23% more than if they only had one choice.
What does Brian recommend?
Never have more than two items on your plate at any time. You can go back for more, but lack of variety and having to get up makes you eat less.
(For more on how to be resilient when faced with challenges, click here.)
You’ve reduced your options. But food isn’t the only thing that affects how much you eat. Another element of your environment is key too.
6) Be Mindful Of Those You Eat With
How much you eat is strongly affected by how much those around you eat, but you rarely realize it.
Dining with friends? You’ll probably eat twice as much.
Eating with overweight friends? You’ll eat more.
Is your waitress overweight? You’ll eat more.
Are you a woman eating with a man? You’ll eat less.
Who do you need to be most careful around? Skinny overeaters.Why?
It makes your brain think you can eat like they do without any downside. But for all you know that might be their only meal of the day…
(For more on how to make friends and improve your friendships, click here.)
So we’ve got lots of stuff that can help us eat less. Let’s round it all up.
Here are great tips from Brian Wansink:
- Change what’s visible. Hide the soda and put out the fruit.
- Change what’s reachable. Make a plate, leave the rest in the kitchen and force yourself to walk back for more.
- Plan ahead. Size up the buffet before you load your plate. Don’t shop hungry.
- Eat slower. It takes 20 minutes for the “full” signal to kick in so make sure meals last at least that long.
- Reduce your food options. Only two things on your plate at a time. Make yourself get bored with them.
- Be mindful of those you eat with. Trying to drop weight? Might want to eat alone a bit more often.
So you’re ready to start implementing all this tomorrow? Going to totally overhaul how you eat? Bad idea.
Wansink realized people who were successful at this made changes slowly but were consistent.
We live most of our lives on autopilot. But with a few simple controls in place, autopilot can get us where we want to go.
As Wansink is fond of saying:
Want more lessons from Brian’s research?
I’ll be sending out how to handle eating in restaurants and the most important secret to good grocery shopping in my weekly email.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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