Monday, October 27, 2014

Book Review: Mindless Eating

Knitters like to talk about the many benefits of their hobby- knitting keeps your brain active, you can make adorable hats for the babies in your life and it is cheaper than therapy, even if you go in for the pricey yarn. I'll add one more benefit to the list: knitting can help you eat better. I had a long-standing habit of mindlessly eating my way through mountains of chips and chivda while watching TV. Instead, I now knit my way through scarves and sweaters while watching TV, and have to scramble to fit in my chips and chivda consumption during some other time of the day (Don't worry, I somehow manage to do it. I'm talented like that.)

Anyway, this whole thing about how our food consumption is largely controlled not by our hunger, but by habits and hidden factors in our environment is at the heart of a book I just read: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink.

Image: Goodreads
Wansink has a background in communication research and consumer behavior. He designs clever studies to understand food psychology- many of the studies from his lab and from other research groups are described in Mindless Eating. For instance, think of days-old, stale, rancid popcorn. Not appetizing, right? Not something you would eat even if it was given to you free. In a study, people were offered free (but very stale) popcorn when they went to see a movie right after they had eaten lunch. The movie goers ate it anyway. We are so powerfully conditioned by the smell of popcorn, the sound of others eating popcorn and the association of movie theaters with popcorn-eating that we are compelled to eat even stale popcorn that does not taste good, even when we are not hungry.

Another classic experiment is the bottomless soup bowl, where a bowl of tomato soup is rigged under the table and connected to a large pot which keeps refilling the bowl even as the diner eats from it. We expect that after we've had a bowlful of so of soup, we'll stop eating because we simply won't be hungry any more. Not so. People kept eating as the level of soup in the bowl stayed the same. Our eyes decide how much we eat (I can see that the bowl is empty, so I've obviously eaten enough soup) and not our stomach.

Our expectations of how a food should taste affects the way we feel it tastes. A group of people were told they were tasting strawberry yogurt. Then the lights were turned off and they were give chocolate yogurt to taste. Over half rated it as having a "good strawberry taste". They couldn't see the yogurt, but were expecting strawberry yogurt so that's what they tasted.

This book came out a decade ago. Food psychology findings are of great human interest and they regularly make their way to mainstream media, so I can't say that there was anything in this book that was absolutely novel for me. But Wansink has a friendly, chatty and slightly goofy style which was fun to read. He points out the pitfalls that cause people to eat more than they intend to, and offers suggestions for tweaking our lives to make it easier to eat the way we want to eat.

I love food, enjoy food and am deeply grateful for having food. Under no circumstances do I want to trick my body into starving itself. But if I can set up my environment and build small habits to avoid consuming food that I don't particularly want or need, that would certainly be helpful. And that's where this books gives a few pointers.

Whatever fills the plate/bowl looks like the proper serving size to us. It is well documented that the size of dinnerware has grown over the decades, to the point where we're mindlessly overeating simply when we serve ourselves food for a meal. I remember buying a set of dinnerware from Crate and Barrel some years ago, and the bowls were so huge that I use them as serving bowls and not to eat from! This is a very easy problem to fix. Buy smaller bowls and plates and you'll eat more reasonable portions.

For a while now, I've been serving dessert in stainless steel vatis/katoris (small bowls) that I bought in India. They are perfect for a satisfying sweet finish to the meal, in a dainty portion. I try to be a good host and don't want to trick anyone into eating less. Anyone who wants seconds is welcome to take them but people rarely do. As the book says, the best part of dessert is the first two bites.

There is plenty of other advice in this book that's sensible enough: See how much you're eating- don't eat straight from the package. Aim to eat until you are no longer hungry; not until you're full (there's a big difference between those two). If you don't want to eat something, put it out of sight and inconvenient to reach (no candy dishes on the desk if you're trying to avoid sweets). If you want to eat more of something, make it convenient (cut up veggie sticks front and center in the fridge for snacking).

There's a lot of stuff in this book that's just good fun. Things that seem pretty obvious when you think about it, but are backed by studies and statistics. There's a whole chapter on how food with an alluring name tastes better to us. Traditional Cajun Beans and Rice is more appealing than Beans and Rice. Belgian black forest double chocolate cake sounds dreamier than plain old chocolate cake. Think about this next time you're cooking for company, or naming a recipe on your food blog!

Wansink talks about the Nutritional Gatekeeper of the family, the person who does most of the food shopping and cooking. They are a powerful influence on how each member of the family eats. He does very interesting studies on what he calls "the curse of the warehouse club" which shows that buying supersized containers leads people to over-consume. The bigger the shampoo bottle, the more you pour out, and so on.

There was one or two things in the book that I found jarring, such as when Wansink talks about ideal body weight for women based on a rule of thumb used by modeling and acting coaches. Um, no. That kind of obsession with thinness is unhelpful; healthy people come in all sizes and being thin does not equate being fit.

But this quibble aside, I found Mindless Eating to be a quick, helpful and enjoyable read. If you can better understand where you're over-eating, you can do something to fix it. Next time I'm parked next to the chips and dip at a party, I sure hope the book cover will flash in front of my eyes. 


  1. This book seems very interesting. I will add it to my reading list. Thanks! I do tend to overeat if I am watching tv and eating at the same time or if its my favorite food. I case of the latter I do wish there was some kind of a bottomless bowl :-). I can't believe that chocolate yogurt can taste like strawberry in the dark :-)) that is hilarious if you think about it and will tempt some parents to feed picky eaters the veggies they dislike in the dark. I had a good laugh just imagining that scene. I find the standard bowl that one gets in dinner sets here too big for indian food, I also prefer using stainless steel 'vatis' instead and I have a set of small glass prep bowls that are meant for mise en place which I regularly use for serving food. About naming food interestingly, unless I am cooking very traditional food that one should not mess with I tend to improvise a lot while cooking and have secret ingredients or twists that I love people to guess while they taste so I let them name it :-) its fun and people are usually very kind and generous while naming food cooked for them by someone else. Since this book was written a decade ago maybe the modeling and acting industry was not so focused on size zero or pencil thin figures. Every time I look at old movies I realize how the actresses had fuller figures and neither were all models so tall.

    - Priti

    1. Glass prep bowls are a good idea, Priti. Standard dinnerware bowls are OK for soup and maybe noodle dishes but not for other food and certainly not for desserts, I find!

  2. Hi, 1000th time here, commenting for the first time - am an ardent fan of your work and blog. This is so true. I tend to continue to eat till the show I am watching on TV is over - as we are so engrossed in the show that once we are done eating, we dont even get up to keep the remaining food back in the kitchen - till the next break! So, since the bowl half full of food is still there, my plate is still there, why not nibble on more while watching TV? The best soultion is to not eat with the TV on. Still struggling to implement it! - Mansi

    1. Well, I finally managed to break the TV-eating habit. Mostly it was not out of choice- we used Aereo for TV and it got shut off so there went the evening news. We now eat a peaceful dinner without the TV and it is fine. I survived :) Then I watch TV while crafting so all is well. No eating involved.

  3. I overeat the foods I love. Most common being dessert (specifically dark chocolates). I have been known to down the entire bars of chocolates in one sitting. Yikes!! I do not watch TV, and do not like to eat while watching movies, so mindless eating happens only when there is my favorite food hanging around in the house. The days there is no chocolate in the house, I do not even crave for it that much. But whenever there is, I take it upon myself to finish it up :(
    I totally agree that we tend to eat more than our bodies actually need. The Costco revolution of selling everything in HUGE is almost forced (many times unknowingly) to over eat to prevent from letting the food go waste.
    I think this has extended beyond food...We (as in most of the people) tend to live in huge houses, thinking we need all that space, and then fill up that space with things we think we need. Same with cars..Most of us upgrade to bigger cars when we have kids.. Growing up, having a car itself was considered a luxury.

    1. "But whenever there is, I take it upon myself to finish it up"- This right here is my exact problem! I can't leave a bag of chips/chakli alone until it is all gone. Sweets, chocolate and candy I don't care for. So really it is a question of buying my trigger foods only rarely and in small packs.

      As for overeating to prevent food waste, I can identify with that also, as ironic as it is. These days, I prevent that by taking food to my workplace and setting it out for all to enjoy. And freezing extras for later (with proper labels). And most importantly, by thinking twice before buying or cooking large quantities of food.

  4. Hi Nupur! Thanks for reviewing this book in your wise and unbiasedway. It was an interesting read. I like his two bites idea for desserts also- it works for me. One thing I found (for myself! everyone is different!) is that when I ate large amounts of carbohydrates, I was constantly hungry and craved more sweets. Even exercising did not help, it just made me more hungry. Eating more protein and green vegetables has helped me a LOT- I exercise a lot more intensely but I feel satiated so not tempted by sweet carbs anymore. BTW, there is also a great article on yahoo today where Bobbi Brown interviews Harley Pasternak and he is full of common sense advice too on nutrition and fitness...

    P.S. I tried to post on your last two blogs, but I think my entries were swallowed by the ether...:-)


    1. R- It is so important to figure out what works best for one's own body! I am glad you worked it out for yourself. I'm the same way- empty carbs (cookies, chips, crackers) start me off on a cycle of craving more of the same. I do best with frequent small meals of whole foods with lots of vegetables.

      I did see your comments on the previous posts, they are not lost :)

  5. Awareness is the key ingredient. Ayurveda speaks about it too, as being an essential ingredient in the process of cooking, serving and consuming food. I am eternally grateful to my daily practice of meditation that has helped (and continues to help) me develop awareness.

    1. True, true. It is wonderful to practice and keep working at being more aware and more mindful. But the average person makes so many food-related decisions per day (hundreds) that for most people, it makes more sense to change habits and environment than rely on being aware in every moment. Eg. don't buy the tempting mega-pack of cookies rather than buy it and rely on oneself to be mindful and only eat one a day.

  6. Seems like a very interesting read! Since I moved to the US, I have realized that my portions sizes have become huge. When I go to visit in India, I always ask my mother for two times the amount of coffee she typically gives me. Growing up we used to drink coffee in stainless steel tumblers and that portion is not sufficient for me anymore, as I prefer my huge ceramic mugs! Atleast huge quantities of coffee are not terrible but the same idea follows into food too. Ofcourse mindless eating is the bane of my life. I like how crochet minmizes yours!

    1. Yes, you always have to watch out for portion sizes around here. These days, I often take an empty lunch box to restaurants. When I get served my entree, I remove a portion for lunch and put it away.

  7. In India, portion sizes are still under control. When I moved to the US for a couple of years, I was shocked at the amount of food that was served to one person. Initially, I would never be able to finish it, but slowly, my appetite started growing and I was easily able to finish my portion. Now that I'm back in India, I find myself still hungry after eating what is served here. My grandmother always says 'Aahar jasa vadhavu tasa vadhto. Ani jasa kami karu tasa kami hoto". To the non-Marathi folk, it basically means you have total control of your appetite. Our body has the capacity to increase or decrease it. I find this entirely true.

    I also agree with the commentator above who says that carbs make you more hungry. I find that when I eat protein like dal, paneer, soy etc, I feel stuffed and energetic for a long time.

  8. Knitting keeps you away from mindless tv-watching too! I know how I loved those ginormous tea-cups on Friends and asked my sister to get me some. I had to use them to set yoghurt because it was just too much tea to drink inone go, not to mention that half of it would get too cold to drink.

    It is eye-opening to have these interesting 'facts' presented to us backed by scientific research. We need to practice mindful eating!

  9. Very true that whether one is satisfied by small or large portions is determined by habit. And yes, most homes and restaurants in India serve moderate portions (except for some thali restaurants and the like where you are given a vast amount of food). But I was shocked and dismayed at how Indians have diabetes- clearly the middle class, urban Indian lifestyle (including mine) needs a makeover- we tend to overload on carbs, eat too many sweets and fried snacks and don't get enough opportunities for exercise. Add to that the genetic predisposition for diabetes and it is a crisis.

  10. Hi Nupur,

    I have a different take on portion sizes in the U.S and in India. When visiting home, I am amazed at the larger quantities of food people eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Say for example the standard serving size for an adult would be 4 dosas for dinner. Here the standard serving size seems 2 dosas. Same with rotis. Also the amount of rice people eat in India is almost twice what we would eat here for lunch. Some may eat more or less, but on an average I feel that we eat more in India. People also use ghee and oil more liberally in India. It might be the hot and humid weather, was my thought. Also people are not so concerned about diet and weight. I think one reason for that may be the Indian clothes are more accommodating to weight fluctuations. Though these are all changing now...

    The only exception is beverages, For sure coffee and tea are typically served in 4 oz steel tumblers in India whereas here we use 8 or 10 oz cups. And there is an abundance of junk food both here and in India now.

    Overall our Indian diet is mainly carbs, and it was fine when food was limited and we had physically active lifestyles. Basically anything we consumed had to be made from scratch while we were growing up just 20 years ago. Instant snacks would be roasted dhalia, peanuts or puffed rice with coconut and jaggery, mangoes, bananas or boiled tapioca or sweet potato at my grand mother's place. I don't remember snacking as a regular part of our life. We ate 3 meals and the adults drank coffee and tea in between. Snacks were a special treat. Now everything is available everywhere, and is affordable. Our lifestyle has become sedentary too.

    These two changes is what is making us conscious of our portion sizes. Basically, nature's way of saying you cannot have it all!

    As always a thought provoking post!


    1. SN: You seem to be talking about the portions in your own home in the US, unless I'm not understanding you. When people talk about the large portion sizes in the US, they are generally referring to what's served in a mainstream restaurants, for instance a pasta plate at Olive Garden or a breakfast platter IHOP, or the sizes of food that are considered a single serving, like bagels.

  11. When I read this book several years ago and wanted to loose weight, I didnt change anything about food as my first step, but replaced my plates.
    From Dinner plates to salad plates
    the cereal bowl was replaced by The smallest anchor glass bowl
    the gigantic cup to the smallest cup possible - IT is very hard to find Scandinavian size cups in this country and recently i found villeroy boch cups which after sale cost $15 a piece on sale . Is it worth it. Time will tell.

    Step 2: Changed vegetable oil to 100 % coconut oil, til oil, mustard oil. HERE comes the FAT and this fat is lovely. It lubricates our body and makes sure our food is properly injected into where it should be. 100 % fat is good. Yes , I use Ghee as well - liberally. I have only lost fat - 30 lbs in all in 2 years with no exercise ( i am not proud of not doing it , but i am lazy ) .

    Lesson learnt - what you eat makes all the difference.
    What you breathe ( half lungs, full lungs, does not use lungs at all ) makes the greater difference. - the point is providing oxygen to your body. oxygen is fuel and it burns the fat at the right places .

    The following is plain abuse to your body, mind and spirit
    Do not eat after sun down
    Do not eat because everybody else is eating.
    Do not eat because it is the right thing to do.
    Do not eat to be polite.


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