Sunday, June 5, 2011

The origin of the Clean Plate Club. or, It's not my fault, I blame the vikings

I'm continuing my man-crush on Cornell economist, Brian Wansink, whose book "Mindless Eating" is continuing to provide excellent insight and amusement.

"Give us your small, snack-sized livestock or I will smite thee!"
Given the topic of my blog, ManMeetsScale, I want to use at least some of the time to talk about various pressures and incentives men have to make not-so-good eating decisions.  On a personal level, I am very much inclined to ascribe all of my own behavioral failings to hidden societal pressures dating back to ancient Mesopotamia.  Really, if the Assyrians were a little more thoughtful, they would have established a culture and ethos of healthier and more mindful eating which then would have spread over Greece, then Rome and ultimately the parts of Europe that were worshiping trees at the time.  Instead, men in the times of yore were perfectly happy to eat until they had to vomit.  The Romans were quite good at this.  Heaven knows the Vikings were big feasters.  Give them a leg of mutton, and they were happy to sack another English village.  No doubt their own military adventures brought some of that Viking meal assault culture which then led Henry VIII to gorge on food on endless banquet tables.  From there, the next stop was the Superbowl.

The thing about Romans, Vikings and British kings is that they ultimately became role models for would-be gladiators and monarchs everywhere.  In other words, me.  I would have been an excellent Viking, and I'm sure I could have a rocking beard if I gave it half a chance.  For a long time, I definitely ate like a Viking, the approving nods of my buddies.

Then I discovered Weight Watchers.  Now I turn up my nose when faced with the meat buffet.  I rarely eat a sandwich, and I like salad an awful lot.  Clearly a sissy of epic proportions!  Real men eat sides of beef all at once, and they surely don't eat quiche.  Actually, I don't eat quiche either because it has way too much butter in the crust and is full of hidden calories.  Gracious me.  Am I so far on the unmanly eating scale that I'm to the left of the quiche eater?  That is troubling indeed.

Think I'm making this manly eating stuff up?  Witness yet another fascinating experiment by that clever Wansink over at the Cornell school of test subject deception.  He and his colleagues have done a number of experiments in which they observe people eating popcorn in movie theaters.  In one experiment they found that when women paid attention to how much popcorn they were eating, they ate less.  Makes sense, right?  Apparently, not for us super-smart men.  When guys indicated that they were paying attention to how much popcorn they were eating, they ate more.  Seriously.

However, his second experiment was even more telling.  They did an ingenious experiment in which they wrote a script/story of a guy on a date.  They randomly assigned people to read one of two versions that were different from each other in only one seemingly minor way.  In one version, the guy in the story ate a couple of handfuls of popcorn.  In the other, he ate almost all of his popcorn.  They conducted the survey with 140 college men and 140 college women.  Here were the results:

  • College men:  the guy in the version of the story that ate almost all of his popcorn was consistently rated as stronger, more aggressive and more masculine than the two handfuls guy.  In fact, when asked how much they thought he could bench press, the full popcorn guy could bench an average of 21 pounds more.  Holy Toledo.  The popcorn was not even a central point of the story, which was a fairly detailed account about a guy on a date.  The seemingly subtle difference on how much popcorn he ate was enough to give him a 20lb bench advantage.  I am doing a chest workout tomorrow morning, and I'm seeing a movie with my kids today.  I just might have to check this out.  
  • College women:  They didn't rate either version of the guy as either stronger or more masculine.  In other words, the notion that women care about how much we guys eat seems over-rated, at least in this experiment.  
So what does this little experiment tell us?  I have often heard that women work out and dress nicely to impress each other, not the men in their life.  Is it possible that we men are inclined to clean our plates (and sometimes eat them too) in an effort to impress each other?  Is this the fast food version of moose rutting?  

While this is mostly pretty amusing, I cannot help think that it represents at least one significant barrier preventing men from taking hold of theirs weight issue:  we worry about how we think our brothers will react to our doing something about it.  Statistically, men are 50% less likely to do something about their weight (and therefore their health) than women.  While women feel pressured by body image and the media to lose weight, it seems that men have the exact opposite incentive. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that it would be a good thing for men to become slaves to body image, though I sadly see this happening in pockets.  However, it is also not a good thing for men to feel pressure to eat like a starving lion in an effort to impress others.  

I've been doing Weight Watchers and dealing with my weight for so long that I'm mostly past caring what my guy friends think about my dainty food choices.  However, I do, from time to time, feel a little self conscious when everyone else orders a steak served with a blue cheese blanket, and I'm asking for the simply grilled salmon with fresh spring vegetables.  According to Mr. Wansink, my concern over college frat guy approval is warranted.  Apparently, I can take some solace that at least the girls, or at least my wife, don't care.  




  1. Great post! As a kid I didn't care what people thought when they saw what I ate. Nowadays, even before starting WW, I am consumed by what others are thinking when they see what I'm eating, regardless if it's healthy or an indulgence.

  2. As a woman, it bugs me that I definitely feel the need to dress to please other women, who are way more critical than the men I know ever are. Do I care what a man eats? I didn't think so, but I can see how the man who eats all his popcorn would seem more... manly... but only if you're making me take notice. I'm going to have to find that book ...

  3. This reminds me of a line that a lady comedian had, "I would much rather get naked in front of a man than woman. Women are so judgemental. Men are just..... grateful." :)

  4. My first job was at a local fast food stand, which had about 20 kids working at any given time of day, and it was a lunch tradition for some of the guys (high school jocks, mostly) to have food competitions to see who could eat the most. "I ate a double cheeseburger, large fry, chicken sandwich, 2 hot dogs, and a large shake" one would say as he licked his ice cream cone. So then FOUR quarter-pound patties would go down on the grill for the next guy... These competitions finally stopped when the boss realized he was going to lose his shirt on his employees' man games! But it didn't stop there. For the last month of every season, hot dogs would go on sale for half price, and every year a group of college kids came, ordered DOZENS of hot dogs, and had an unofficial hot dog eating contest on the benches outside. These hotdogs were 8 points each, plus the roll, and these guys would each 15 or 20 of them! Of course, I did see plenty of girls brag about how much they could eat, but usually when they came in with male friends. The girls tended to be sneak eaters. They may have ordered a burger in front of their friends, but it would be a burger, fry, and a dog when they came in alone. Guys usually ordered more in front of others... I tell you, there's great people watching when you work with food. =-)

  5. "manly eating".....Dave, you crack me up.


  6. Great Post! And your wife is a VERY LUCK lady!

  7. Check out this week's "weekly" - It looks like Leslie Fink's comment about counting chicken wing bones is right out of Wasnick's book.

  8. Dave
    The book you mentioned - Mindless Eating -- is great and makes you really think. I've only read a little and your posts. It is amazing what their studies have found.

    Keep up with your great posts. Thanks.

  9. Hi David,

    I am an ardent Weight Watcher, a great admirer of the programs's social mission, and a big fan of your blog as well. As I've noted before, it's no small thing that the most intelligent weight loss blog around happens to be written by the male CEO of Weight Watchers - that is both a tribute to you and a barometer of how far our culture has come since that first Wednesday meeting in Jean N.'s living room 50-odd years ago.

    That Old Me photo is very telling. It's not just the extra weight, it's the anxious look in your eyes - it matches perfectly with Jean N.'s description of the expressions she became used to seeing on the faces of overweight people across the globe - fearful, anxious, and filled with false bravado. It's quite moving. And this leads me to a suggestion: I find Jean's book to be a goldmine of helpful hints and historical context - a wonderful combination of practical and spiritual ( yes, spiritual ) value. Much like your blog. It's the one item for sale that I wish the leaders would push - it's helped me tremendously but I find in general that other members don't know how intensely useful it is, and my attempts to make it a subject of discussion have mostly failed. Perhaps it could be included in the membership kit - or even better, a pamphlet with a few choice quotations could be made available for free. I'd bet you it would spur sales of the book ( which seem to be unimpressive given the very tall and very dusty pile of copies at my meeting ). My own copy is filled with underlinings and little notes in the margins like " Yep, that's me!" and I carry it with me everywhere. It's a great defense against a binge.

    Kind regards,
    Jonathan Fried

  10. Hi David, I am a Lifetime WW member and have been going to meetings on and off for about 20 years (I am 41). I love your blog and laugh out loud frequently while reading it. I have just purchased Wansink's book after reading about it here and I am really, really enjoying it. Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention and keep up the good work! You are making a huge, positive difference.
    Jill Butler

  11. I heard Brian talk about 2 years ago. His research is phenomenal. I really believe we can't spend enough time thinking about how the behavior of our friends, family and coworkers influence what we eat, how we exercise, and where we spend time. Nicholas Christakis has conducted some very interesting work on this topic. Find his Ted Talk video at: