Snacking: The Science of Getting Fat One Chip at a Time

October 21, 2006

Snacking:  The Science of Getting Fat One Chip at a Time 

 Reference:  Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think by Brian Wansink 

 This book is hilarious and way too true.  Professor Wansink has done research on how we snack and the psychology of it all.  He’s at Cornell now but started at University of Illinois, Urbana.  His book is being published this week.    His findings are being intensively studied by the food industry.  They are trying to sell you more.  We need to be savvy and learn our own vulnerabilities so that we can name our own behavior, observe our weaknesses and develop strategies to counteract those chinks in our determination. 

 How deep is your soup bowl?  How big is the ice cream scoop?    What is the person next to you eating?  Are you distracted?  Are you in an environment where you always eat a snack?  How big is the container?  All those little cues influence us in a fashion that is almost out of your consciousness.  

What Dr. Wansink has discovered is that we are influenced by the environment in which we are placed, even though we will adamantly deny it when asked. For starters, we think we make 15-20 food decisions a day.  Wrong.  More like 200.  Your companion next to you?  If they eat like a pig, you will too.  A bigger plate?  You obediently fill it up.  A soup bowl with a trick bottom that never gets empty.  We will all happily munch away until his lab techs stop the experiment and send us of with a whole belly full of soup, thinking we just ate a little tiny bowl of tomato soup.  The buffet dinner with 50 choices?  We think we need to sample them all.  Exercising?  We all calculate far more than we need afterward. 

 One of his experiments was in a Chicago movie theatre with 5-day-old popcorn.  It was given to moviegoers for free in either large or medium buckets.  Then weighed when it was done.  The large bucket folks ate 51% more.   Now, I find 5-day old food of one kind or another in the break room at work all the time.  And I’m not shy to dig in.  When it’s sitting there in a big bowl, our instinct is that of the hunter-gatherer who just found a food supply.  Dig in and get as much as you can, you never know if you will ever eat again.  That’s what our lizard brain tells us.  And our body obediently takes all those calories and stores them in our fat cells against that rainy day of no food. 

 Dr. Wansink’s suggestions?  Sit next to the slowest eater with the smallest plate at a party.   Start eating last.  Talk.   Be like the French, stretch your eating out over time so that your brain has a chance to get the full messages your body sends out after about 20 minutes of eating.  Never ever eat from a package.  Close it up and put it away before you eat.  Only take two items at a time from a buffet line.  And all of those things before you even decide what food to eat. 

 WWW: What will work for me.  I’ve ordered this book.  We all need to understand its psychology.  I’m getting better at catching my own lizard brain instinct to pile in the calories when I’m distracted.  But for me, I have to keep those delicious snack foods out of the house.  That pan of brownies becomes a goal to get through before they go stale.  You don’t want to “waist” food do you?

This column was written by Dr. John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI, (262-784-5300)