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Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Thinkby Brian Wansink
Author Q & A
Q: What inspired you to write Mindless Eating?
A: Twenty years of my research can be summarized in saying "People's tastes are not formed by accident." I wanted to make sure people knew this, so they can make small changes which will lead them to eat less and enjoy it more.
Q: What does it mean to mindlessly eat?
A: Most of us don't overeat because we're hungry. We overeat because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers.
Our studies show that the average person makes around 250 decisions about food every day — breakfast or no breakfast? Pop-tart or bagel? Part of it or all of it? Kitchen or car? Yet out of these 200+ food decisions, most we cannot really explain. Mindless Eating shows what these decisions are and how to make them work for you rather than against you.
Q: In the book you discuss how your research is used by food companies, restaurants, and supermarkets. Explain.
A: Here are four examples.
A: One reviewer called me the "Sherlock Holmes" of eating. I thought that was cool because Mindless Eating uses science to answer some of the puzzles as to why we eat like we do. But it also shows how we can make our environment work for us rather than against us. Bookstores classify it as being either psychology, diet, health, or self-help. I think they're all right, but I'm still hoping for one of them to list it as humor.
Q: How can everyday folks utilize your research findings to lose weight?
A: The key is to make three small monthly changes that will move you from mindless overeating to mindless better eating. The most common places to look are the five diet danger zones: Meal stuffing, snack grazing, party binging, restaurant indulging, and desktop dining. To find the three small changes, you can use basic diet tips, but a more personalized approach is to use 1) Food Trade-offs, or 2) Food policies. Mindless Eating shows that both give you a chance to eat some of what you want without making it a belabored decision.
Q: In the book, you discuss the science behind comfort food. Can you explain?
A: Twenty years of my research can be summarized by saying "Our tastes are not formed by accident." The fact we like comfort foods is predictable, but it is also somewhat predictable which foods we will like, when and why we like them, and when all of it backfires. For starters, we found that men prefer meal-related comfort foods like steak, pasta, pizza, burgers because they make them feel special and well-taken care of. Women, on the other hand, don't think of these as comfort foods. These foods reminded them of work — cooking and clean-up. Women much preferred the convenience of the snack foods, like cookies, chocolate, and ice cream. Eating ice cream from the container equals no cooking and no clean-up.
Q: Why do you think Americans have such a weight problem?
A: We're partly a victim of our own success. We want convenient, inexpensive, tasty food, and that's what we've been given. But we can't eat like a kid in a candy store. The key to the quickest way to eliminate mindless overeating is to start at home. We need to set up our daily environment and routine so we can eat the right amounts of food we enjoy.
Q: What does it mean to be the nutritional gatekeeper of the household?
A: The nutritional gatekeeper is the person in the house who buys food and prepares it. We estimate the Gatekeeper controls 72% of all of the food decisions of their children and spouse. They either control these decisions for the better or for the worse. But even if you aren't Martha Stewart or Emeril, there are a lot of ways you can condition your kids to be better eaters.
This study of over 1200 parents was the lead article in the September 2006 issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.
Q: What are your top three MINDFUL eating tips?
A: The best Mindful Eating tips are personalized and tied to your diet danger zone. But here's what I would suggest: First, pick no more than three small changes to make each month. For instance,
Mindless Eating has lots of tips, but to really personalize them, it's good to use food trade-offs and food policies. Instead of giving you a prescription diet plan to follow, Mindless Eating shows you why you overeat so that you can make small, stylized changes that fit with your life. It shows how you can mindlessly eat better, instead of obsessively eat right. It starts with only three changes.
Q: Which results from your research have you found to be particularly shocking?
A: After conducting hundreds of food studies, I'm increasingly convinced that our stomach has only three settings: 1) We either feel like we're starving, 2) we feel like we're stuffed, or 3) we feel like we can eat more. Most of the time we're in the middle, we're neither hungry nor full, but if something's put in front of us, we'll eat it. I all but guarantee people would lose 30 pounds in a year if every time they had a craving they would announce — out loud — "I'm not hungry, but I'm going to eat this anyway." Having to make that declaration either prevents you for eating, or if you do indulge, it prevents you from overindulging.
A second result is that most people think they are too smart to be influenced by candy dishes, television, or the shape of a glass. When showing someone that they ate 30% more because we gave them a large scoop at the ice cream social, they will deny it. That's what is so astonishing. No one wants to admit they were tricked by something as mundane as the size of a scoop or the shape of a glass. That's what makes these so dangerous to our diets.
Q: Can the television programs you watch determine what you eat?
A: Watching TV can be a triple threat: People who watch a lot of TV exercise less, eat more, and weigh more than those who do not watch much TV. In one of our studies, we showed people who watched 60 minutes of TV at 28% more than those watching 30 minutes.
Q: Are you ever guilty of Mindless Eating? What are your favorite foods?
A: Almost every does it at one time or another. It's more important how frequently you do it. For instance, I love Southern food. Every time I'm in the South I pretty much spend the first day binging on Soul food. That's fine because I'm only there once or twice a year. I also mindlessly eat from the veggie trays at parties. That's a free food that you can eat all you want.
I have a shocking range of favorites: gourmet food, fast food, and bizarre food. I love the galette de crabe at Le Bec Fin, the Cini-minis at Burger King, and the braised duck tongue at the night market in Taipei.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from the book?
A: Most people believe they are Master and Commander of their food choices. I want them to see that they aren't. But I also want them to see that they can make small changes that can put them back in the driver's seat. I want people to see that making small changes in their kitchens and routines will make all the difference with no real sacrifice.
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