Monday, May 30, 2011

The perils of endless food

When it comes to the world of weight management, the word I despise the most is "willpower".  It bothers me that there is a presumption that if we were just "better" people that there would not be an obesity issue in this country.  While it is true that dealing with a weight issue requires attention and some elbow grease, I wholly disagree with the notion that our failings are due to a lack of character.

With this in mind, I have been greatly enjoying a book that I have been meaning to read for a long time, "Mindless Eating", by Brian Wansink.  Brian is probably the last guy on Earth that you would think would write one of the most interesting on weight loss on Earth.  Why?  He's not a psychologist, but rather he is a PhD economist who is a professor of applied economics at Cornell University.  What makes Brian's work so fascinating is the massive number of experiments that he and his colleagues have undertaken to understand why we consumers do the things we do around food.  Wansink has a weird combination of intelligence, statistical rigor and a slightly corrupt sense of humor.

The gist of this book, which I highly recommend BTW, is that humans underestimate the degree to which they can successfully resist a tempting environment.  I completely agree with his conclusion that the secret of mastering our obesogenic environment is not to summon mythical heaps of willpower, but rather to learn how to change our environment to help nudge us toward healthier choices.  Over my coming posts, I will try to make it a point to reference the results of some of his experiments as I continue to examine my own nutritional failings as well as my plans to address them.

I'd like to start with one of my favorites.  Wansink's belief is that very few people stop eating because they are full.  Rather, they tend to stop eating when they receive certain visual or other types of external cues.  In one particularly twisted experiment, he asked a bunch of test subjects eat soup until they were full.  All of us members of the Clean Plate Club (I'm a charter member) use the existence of an empty plate to signal that we must be full.  In his clever soup experiment, Wansink and his conspirators rigged some soup bowls so that they were automatically refilling.  His subjects would either get a normal bowl or they would get one that was secretly and automatically refilling.  He served soup in a large 18 ounce bowl and asked people to stop when they were full.  Here were the results:

  • People in the normal -- if 18 oz can be considered normal -- bowl group ate an average of 9 ounces of soup.  When asked to estimate how many calories they thought they consumed, they guessed 123.  It turns out they actually ate 153 calories.  In other words, they underestimated by 24% -- a cautionary tale for us all!  
  • People in the bottomless bowl group ate an average of 15 ounces (!) or 67% more than the normal bowl group.  Apparently a few ate over a quart.  When asked how many calories they guessed they had eaten, they replied with an average of 127 -- about the same as the normal bowl group.  In fact, they had eaten an average of 268 calories.  The underestimated by 111% how much they had eaten.  
What should we take from this?  Humans are terrible at guesstimating calories, particularly if they don't have a visual cue to help guide them.  One of the reasons for this is that most research indicates that it takes the stomach about 20 minutes to inform the brain that it's had enough food.   I don't think I've ever taken 20 minutes to eviscerate a plate of food in my entire life.  

One important conclusion of this is to remind ourselves why keeping track of what we eat is so important.  Countless research has shown that people have a STRONG tendency to underestimate how much they eat by 25% to 30%.  That is more than enough of an error to result in consistent weight gain if not frustration at a lack of weight loss.  Even when we track, we have a tendency to underestimate portion size or to miss tracking bites/licks/tastes, but the act of tracking has been demonstrated over and over and over and over and over again to give us a huge advantage of those who do not.  

So what does this have to do with me and the size of my waist?  Last night, our neighbors invited us over for a BBQ.  They are wonderful and givings hosts, and they had a full spread of food more than adequate for the six adults present.  In fact, I would say the spread was solidly bountiful, particularly on the chips and guacamole side of the table.  With such a large basket of chip and a huge bowl of guacamole, I couldn't hope to make a dent in it despite my best mindless grazing efforts.  If I'm just being honest, I have no Earthly idea how much I ate other than the fact that it was a heck of a lot more than I could ever hope to guesstimate.  

What would have been a better strategy?  Easy (in practice).  Rather than pick off the finger food trays, the much better strategy would have been to plate out everything I planned to eat onto a dish.  I could have easily lingered and nibbled off the plate, but I would have had a visual cue when I was getting to the end.  Asking for a paper plate would have only been slightly antisocial and weird, and I don't think my good friends would have used this as a convenient excuse to never have me back -- they have much better, substantive excuses for that.  

One other nice benefit of pre-plating snacks is that it forces you though a series of steps that are slightly more involved and deliberate than merely opening the back and shoving my head inside of it and then breathing deeply.  If I make myself use a plate, there are times that I will not be able to motivate to go to the trouble of grabbing a plate and then putting it in the dishwasher.  Never underestimate the power of laziness!  

This week, I'm going to try pre-plating all of my snacks so I can actually keep track of the PointsPlus values.  I will let you know how it goes.  




  1. Thanks for the book recommendation..... lately, my library has become overwhelmingly full with food/eating/obesity related books -- and cookbooks. Eek. :D So what's one more? But seriously, thank you. It looks to be very interesting and worth the read to learn more about ourselves and how our mind works, even sometimes against the body's best interests!

  2. The book looks very interesting, thank you for the review!

    I like the pre-plating idea. I myself make it a point to eat *everything* on small plates, weighed and measured and calculated. So much "safer" that way.

  3. I find plating snacks also helps with balance--at a family BBQ this weekend, instead of grazing, I plated my snacks, and made sure that I filled 3/4 of the plate with veggies, and the other quarter with a couple of shrimp and a triangle of Laughing Cow. It was visually much easier to ensure that I was eating mostly veg than if I was grazing.

  4. I've been loving your blog. I'm a lifetime member and am struggling to stay at goal. I recommitted myself to tracking, and your post have been so timely for me as of late. I also went to a cookout tonight and had some success and some reminders of my ongoing journey.

    I love reading your honesty and would love to read your thoughts on dessert, especially in social situations. Please keep writing - it's so very helpful!

  5. I find plating my snacks is a great help in curbing my overeating. If I want some chips or some cookies or some goldfish, I put the exact serving size in a bowl and then put the bag away and walk the other way to eat. I will eat them slower as I see my supply dwindling. This works for drinks, too. When I have a soft drink in a tiny cup on an airplane or in a busy restaurant with little chance of getting a quick refill, I will really nurse it to make it last, as opposed to chugging down cupful after cupful when I know the rest of the 2 liter is inches away.

  6. I've discovered after 12 years of maintaining a 200# weight loss that without measuring and tracking my food intake, and if left to my own internal barometer to signal when I've had enough to eat, I will always go beyond what I should & therefore gain weight. This past weekend was no exception to proving that. I think I'll get the book - sounds interesting.

  7. I am wondering how you are doing with your 6 pound over goal weight gain. It makes me nervous because if you are having trouble, how will I ever meet goal AND stay there?

  8. Thanks Dave...I read this book (while I was losing) and it helped me re-think how I ate. Just measuring and bringing the snacks to the family room (leaving the bag behind) probably saved me more times than I can count...

    PS - Just finished "Nudge" your previous book and loved it...keep the recommendations coming

  9. Thanks for the book recommendation, I will put it on my reading list :)

  10. I love this kind of research. It shows our members that we are all human and have the same struggles...and there are ways to manage it all. This is a lifetime commitment and will always require conscious eating to be able to maintain or lose.