Snacking again? Modify your environment so you eat better

By Phyllis Picklesimer
Media/Communications Specialist, University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences

URBANA, Ill.—The solution to mindless eating is not “mindful eating.” It’s setting up your home, table and office so you mindlessly eat less, said Brian Wansink, expert on eating behavior and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think, at the University of Illinois Division of Nutritional Sciences’ recent Nutrition Symposium.

Wansink, the John S. Dyson chairman of marketing and applied economics and management at Cornell University and the head of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, previously taught at Illinois and conducted some of his famous research, including the bottomless bowl experiment (see, in U of I’s Spice Box, a café used for training hospitality management majors.

Spoon size, plate size and glass shape all matter much more than you’d expect, so buy smaller plates and bowls and narrow glasses, use them at home, and you’ll eat less, he advised.

“Even the pros are fooled, so don’t think it doesn’t affect you,” he said.

In one Wansink experiment, professional bartenders poured 28 percent more alcohol into short, wide glasses than into tall, slender glasses, even though they believed they had done the opposite.

Another trick is to rearrange your cupboards and refrigerators so healthy foods are at eye level, visually appealing, and the first thing you see. Place the unhealthy choices on a shelf that’s hard to get to so you have to work to reach them, he said.

What if you re-engineer your cupboards, only to be sabotaged by family members who resent not being able to find the potato chips?

“There are different things you can do if you’re the nutritional gatekeeper—the person who has the most control over what’s purchased and prepared—in your family,” he said. “If you keep rearranging things, eventually things should fall into the right pattern, because the first time a family member encounters a change, that snack might seem out of place. It just takes time to break those habits.”

Changes in routine can also make a difference. “Serve from the table or counter instead of the stove,” he said.

If your office mate keeps a dish of chocolate kisses on his desk, you could mention that you’re being tempted. “Most friends are pretty supportive of a person’s efforts to change their eating habits,” Wansink said. “Your co-worker may help you out by moving the candy to the other side of the room. If you have to make more of an effort to get the candy, you’re less likely to eat it.”

And sometimes out of sight really does mean out of mind. In lunchroom experiments, when ice cream was covered with butcher paper, people were less likely to ask for it.

Stress only accounts for about 11 percent of reported overeating, Wansink said.

“Stress eating occurs in one of two ways. Either people are eating too much at one time, or they’re eating too frequently,” he said. “A good way to counter this is make sure you only eat at the table. Make a rule that you can’t eat at the desk or on the couch.”

And never underestimate the value of small changes. Wansink’s recommendations led to the food industry’s development of 100-calorie snack packs.

“It might seem trivial, but being able to grab a 100-calorie snack when you’re headed off to work and then sticking to your plans to eat only that 100-calorie snack mid-afternoon can put you back in the driver’s seat. Making small changes in your kitchen and routines can make all the difference with no real sacrifice,” he said.

For more about Wansink’s experiments with mindless eating, visit the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at or the researcher’s Mindless Eating website at

From the April 20-26, 2011 issue

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