Pragma Synesi – interesting bits

Compendium of interesting bits I come across, with an occasional IMHO

How to eat less

“…use small plates, keep junk food in inconvenient places, avoid eating directly from a package, be the last one at your table to start eating, and–if his own life is any guide–gross yourself out with piles of refuse in your backseat.”

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Thursday, Sep. 27, 2007

Taste Tests

I know I’m being experimented on. In fact, I’ve read the results of these particular psych tests. But I still feel like a jerk as I dip a teaspoon into the applesauce jar yet another time and fill up a tiny saucer, trying to serve myself exactly as much applesauce as I did when I used a big spoon and a big plate. As predicted by previous results, the bigger spoon caused me to serve myself almost 15% more, the big plate 25% more. I also overestimate–by 50%–when I try to pour a shot into a wide glass instead of a tall one, a problem even professional bartenders can’t overcome. And when given a full gallon of orange juice, I indeed pour almost 10% more than when given a half-empty gallon.

All of this delights Brian Wansink, the marketing professor who runs Cornell University’s food lab. That’s mostly because everything delights him. Though he looks a little like the actor Aaron Eckhart, Wansink has all the nerdlike characteristics you’d expect from a mad professor: he has a brain-slammingly loud laugh, overuses the word cool and may be the world’s most excitable 47-year-old. He uses this energy to keep about 50 food experiments going at various stages. Most of these studies underscore the lack of conscious decision making that goes into how much, and what, we eat. Wansink called the book he wrote Mindless Eating.

Wansink’s knowledge impressed me, until I saw the back of his car, which is covered with empty soda cans and McDonald’s cups. Which is even stranger, since Wansink passed the first level of tests to be a professional sommelier and his wife was trained as a chef at Le Cordon Bleu. It’s as if after all his studies, Wansink has determined that there’s no point in trying to keep all the applesauce off the big plate. In his book, he advocates acknowledging how powerless we are and then taking steps to create a healthier eating environment: use small plates, keep junk food in inconvenient places, avoid eating directly from a package, be the last one at your table to start eating, and–if his own life is any guide–gross yourself out with piles of refuse in your backseat.

To get his message out, Wansink conducts some of his lab studies in unscientific, attention-grabbing ways that many of his academic peers find showboaty. Some dismiss his work as “Happy Meal studies.” Wansink counters that his approach hits people where they live–and eat. “Once you’re in a bar giving people chicken wings, people say, ‘Oh, I can relate to that,'” he says, referring to an experiment in which he showed that subjects watching the Super Bowl at a bar ate 28% more chicken wings when the waitresses cleared the bones from the table than when the bones piled up. “That’s the only one real people are going to talk about. They’re not going to talk about your lab study.” Starting this month, Wal-Mart is encouraging its employees to use an online program Wansink developed in which he offers diet tips based on psychological profiles as part of the retailer’s new health plan.

About a third of the time, Wansink’s experiments produce results that surprise even him, as happened with a study on students who buy lunch with debit cards instead of cash–a system many schools are starting to use to take the stigma out of government-aided school-lunch programs. Wansink’s team thought the kids would save as much cash as they could for other purchases. “We thought if you have the cash left over, you can spend it on crystal meth or condoms or whatever high school kids buy,” he says. Instead, when they had cash, the kids spent the same amount of money on food, but they spent more on junk food.

Although I love being around him, I find almost all of Wansink’s results depressing. Apparently, I’ll eat more M&Ms if they’re in 10 colors rather than seven because I’ll crave the variety. And unless I’m a real foodie, or French, flowers at my table will make me eat more, even though they clash with the smells of my meal, making it less appealing. Maybe I should just give up and gnaw on soy bars all day. But Wansink doesn’t see it that way. He figures there are plenty of meals where he’s really focusing and enjoying the food, and that’s when he calorie-splurges. The rest of the time, he just tries to keep the junk away. Which, in all of life, not just food, isn’t that bad of a plan.

October 16, 2007 - Posted by | behaviour

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