‘The solution to mindless eating is not mindful eating — our lives are just too crazy and our willpower’s too wimpy,” wrote Cornell University nutrition professor Brian Wansink in his new book “Slim by Design.” His solution? Eliminate kitchen clutter and comfortable kitchen seats, sit near the window at a restaurant, and chew mint gum at the grocery store.
All of these behaviors are practiced by people who are thin, Wansink found in more than two decades of research that involved surreptitiously watching people interact with food. “If you want to be skinny, do what skinny people do,” Wansink said in an interview.
At restaurants, for example, skinny people sit at a table, not a booth, near a window and away from TVs and bars. They grab a smaller plate at a Chinese buffet, eat with chopsticks, and sit far away from the food, more often with their backs to the buffet.
Are slim people really this strategic?
“By and large most of people have no idea why they do what they do,” Wansink said. “They’re pretty unaware of their own habits” and the fact that such habits naturally cause them to alter how they eat.
To be clear, many of the dozens of studies Wansink and his colleagues conducted in Cornell’s food and brand lab were observational and didn’t prove that implementing specific changes when dining out or shopping in the supermarket led to a lower calorie intake.
Of those that did measure an impact from implementing changes, none looked at long-term benefits like sustained weight loss. For example, he found that volunteers ate 44 percent more calories from fattening snack foods when they were offered them in a clutter-filled kitchen compared to when they were offered the foods in a clean kitchen with empty counter-tops.
“If you look at an out-of-control environment,” he said, “it’s harder to resist temptation because you see the disorder and lack of discipline all around you.” But the findings can’t conclude that cleaning your kitchen will actually help you shed 10 pounds — and Wansink doesn’t make any weight loss promises in his book.
Some of his suggestions sound familiar, such as taking a handful of chips and putting the bag away instead of eating from the bag in front of the TV, or keeping those chips in an inaccessible place such as a high shelf, rather than on the kitchen counter. In fact, the only food that should be kept on the counter, Wansink said, is a bowl filled with a variety of fruits, preferably in a location near a busy thoroughfare.
“I keep my fruit bowl next to my car keys,” Wansink said, “so I can grab a piece when I head out the door.” He also doesn’t have comfy counter stools because those encourage people to spend more time in the kitchen and eat more.
His research in three school lunchrooms found that when fruit was placed in a nice bowl in a well-lit part of the line, sales increased by more than 100 percent.
Supermarkets could also encourage shoppers to make healthier purchases, Wansink said. One study found that serving a small slice of apple or free clementine to those who enter will encourage them to buy 30 percent more produce.
“Shoppers who are tired or thirsty tend to buy more packaged, convenience foods, so having a bathroom and water fountain near the front of the store,” he said, can help people avoid purchasing unhealthy snacks. Chewing gum while shopping can also help reduce impulse purchases by reducing food cravings, he added.
A handful of supermarkets have already instituted some of Wansink’s recommendations, but he aims to start a national movement in which schools, restaurants, and supermarkets make it easier for us to eat healthier. He included sample letters in his book that consumers can give to store managers to ask for a candy-free checkout line and more eye-catching produce displays and letters to give to a restaurant manager to ask for smaller plates on the all-you-can eat buffet line.
I’m not sure how many of the book’s readers will be willing to do that, but Wansink makes a strong case for why businesses may want to comply. It earns them bigger profits to sell batteries instead of candy at the checkout or have patrons eat less at the endless buffet.