Healthy and Sane

Make mindless eating work for you

January 20th, 2011 · 24 Comments · Uncategorized

A few weeks ago I finished reading the Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think book and I really wanted to share its highlights with you. The premise of the book is that all of us mindlessly eat and that we can use it to our advantage and mindlessly eat LESS… and lose weight!


Brian Wansink and his team conducted numerous experiments, testing different mindless eating theories. Every one had a clever set-up and the stories are really fascinating (I highly recommend the book even just for the entertainment factor!). What they discovered was many times very predictable – our minds play tricks on us.

Which glass has more juice?


You probably guessed it – they each have the same amount (6oz each). Could you mindlessly drink a whole glass of juice from the right, while being completely satisfied with a whole glass from the left? That’s double the calories… or half as many if you stock your kitchen with only champagne flutes and mindlessly consume ~100 calories less with every breakfast! [Btw, in case you’re wondering… I don’t drink juice. Adam does.]

Light bulb The stale popcorn experiment at the movie theater concluded that people ate a lot more while being distracted

Light bulbChanging the label on the wine made customers not only think less of one bottle over the other (even though they were the same), but it impacted what they thought of the entire meal (even though it was the same).

Light bulbPeople that saw the chicken bones from their chicken wings ate 4 times less wings that those that had their wing buckets emptied frequently.

Light bulbA soup experiment where special bowls of soup were connected to tubes that constantly refilled the bowls (to a level about mid-way through the bowl… so it would be undetected) revealed that people eyeball where they think they should stop (about half-way through large bowls)and eat until they reach that point. Without this visual marker they keep going (one guy even ate several gallons of soup… all of them ate more than their “regular bowl” counterparts!!).

Light bulbCandy at your desk will make you eat more of it. The number of how many pieces you eat will drastically change based on how far that bowl is or whether it’s covered.

Light bulbThe margin of error when estimating calories grows significantly the more caloric the dish gets (for example if you estimate how many calories a small salad is, you may be off by 50 calories… but if you estimate a large pizza with the works, it may be closer to 300-500 calories)

Light bulb“Working” for food (like shelling nuts) will make you eat less of it.

The most amazing thing is that knowing these tricks does not make us immune to them (Dr. Wansink’s team ran some experiments on Harvard students after teaching them about all of these theories for days… and the outcomes were just as predictable). You may think you won’t be “fooled” by the bottomless bowl, but you will be (everyone at the restaurant where the experiment was conducted did)!; you may think that that candy bowl does not faze you but you will mindlessly eat more than if it wasn’t there at all… or if you put something between yourself and that bowl (like a drawer or a lid… or some distance). So how can we apply all this and make it work for us?

  • Just like we mindlessly eat more junk if it’s in front of us, we will mindlessly eat more veggies/fruits if they are in front of us. Stock your pantries and fill the bowls at your desk/dining room with healthy things if you want to eat them. Make yourself “work” for the stuff that you don’t!
  • The glass trick above is the same for bowls, plates, etc. We often eat/drink with our eyes so trick them and mindlessly consume less (like juice from the glass on the left).
  • The chicken wing example was an important lesson is seeing “evidence” of what you’ve consumed as a visual reminder. None of the those kids at the bar were on a diet, but they naturally stopped eating after consuming a fraction of wings compared to the clean-bowl guys.

Dr. Wansink thinks that you can think of 3 ways that you can mindlessly cut 100 calories off your diet – for example, by only buying chips in single servings bags – you will stick to only one serving instead of 1.5-2 (or more!) servings you may eat if eaten straight from a large bag. That’s an easy change! Or downside your glassware/dishware and always fill half of your plate with veggies. If you figure out what mindless eating tricks could work for you and implement them, you can consume just a bit less without feeling like you’re on a diet – but results will eventually follow!

I know you’ve seen these “tricks” all before but as I mentioned above, it was mind-boggling to read about how we’re all truly fooled by these… even if we think we’re above it all.

Do you have any mindless eating tricks that work for you? I can tell you that I do the cut up/washed veggies and fruits trick and place them in clear sight and Adam eats a lot more fresh produce this way (yup, he’s like a kid Winking smile ). I’m also big on weighing or measuring my high calorie foods because I know that if I ballpark, I will certainly be fooled into mindlessly eating more.

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24 Comments so far ↓

  • #1 - Carly

    Sounds like a really interesting book :) I definitely do the same as you and weigh, count, or measure high calorie snacks (nuts for example) because I can definitely go to town on them if my portion isn’t controlled. Veggies on the other hand I just grab a bunch, the more the merrier!

  • #2 - Samantha Angela @ Bikini Birthday

    Thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed reading this post.

  • #3 - Hillary

    I know that I have issues with portion control, basically I have no idea what the portion is.. so I stop when I’m “full”… knowing that my mind is slow and it takes your body 20 minutes to figure out that it’s full! I decided to measure a LOT more. Like when I make my granola and yogurt in the morning. I also started “rationing” out snacks into baggies..its somewhat tedious that I have to count the amount of crackers, etc but it does make a difference and show me what a serving is. I’ve also started to pre-make sandwiches for the week and labelling how many calories are in each one (again portions are a big issue of mine).

    One place where we all overindulge is wine. I put my large wine glasses to the back of the cabinet and use the small ones now to get closer to the 4 oz. serving size.

    I also like to eat a lot of things in small bowls, so when I have my granola and yogurt it doesn’t seem so tiny!

    Thanks for this post. I think I’ll pick up this book!

  • #4 - Corey @ the runner's cookie

    I definitely do my share of mindless eating, particularly at work. Although pre-portioned things and using different cup sizes are good ideas, I think for me what makes a bigger difference is making sure I’m not distracted while I’m eating, or eating because I’m bored. So often I eat in front of the computer, which leads me to finish and meal and hardly even remember eating it, or how it tasted!

  • #5 - Kelly

    I almost always weigh cheese because it’s so calorie dense, it’s difficult to just eyeball it. Also, I just blogged in my last post about how I’ve learned that I have to leave my afternoon snack in my car. If I take it into work, I’ll eat it within a couple of hours of lunch and then I’ll be hungry again before I work out that evening and need a second snack.

  • #6 - Carpensm @ A Life Without Ice Cream

    Thanks for a great post! I really want to check out that book!

    I’ve been doing the plate trick for years… I bought a new set and the were a bit larger so I never used the big ones… I just downsized a bit but I still feel decadent when I load up the small plate!

  • #7 - Pete

    I was at Cornell when he came out with this book, I used to walk by his office all the time on the way to the library!

  • #8 - Michelle

    These are some great tips! When we are eating breakfast or just nibbles for dinner, Bret and I always use small plates to remind ourselves that we don’t to load up on a large plate to be full!

  • #9 - NYCPatty

    My gosh! Simply fascinating! Especially the endless bowl of soup and the wine. I’m sure I’d fall for all those tricks anyway. But I agree with you completely…weighing and measuring are the two things I am going to work hard on this week to make sure I don’t go over. I even bought the new WW scale.

    Adding this book to my to be read pile! Need to visit the library ASAP!

  • #10 - Bridget

    Those are some great theories in that book! Totally makes sense too! I like eating off smaller plates and bowls. I also use mini spoons at home, but more because I like miniature things…I didnt do it as an eating tool haha, but I guses it must help.

  • #11 - Meghan@travelwinedine

    For me, making sure healthy foods are stocked in the house is how I avoid mindless eating of things like tortilla chips. It sounds like a no brainer, but with one car, we do our major shopping on weekends, and I need to make sure things like apples and single serving yogurts are bought for every day of the week.

  • #12 - janetha @ meals and moves

    oh VERY interesting! thanks for the input on the book. i want to get it.

  • #13 - Ori

    I love your blog lately more than ever. Thanks for sharing your journey!

  • #14 - Megan

    First of all, I love your blog!

    Second, I think I need to go get this book! Like you said, I think I subconsciously knew about all these things, but when I’m eating I throw all caution to the wind. One of my tricks for eating healthier is simply not to buy junk food or sweets. If cookies or candy is in my apartment, I WILL eat it–I can’t help myself. But if it’s not here, I can’t eat it! Stocking your pantry and fridge with fresh fruits and veggies and healthier options are so key! Fruit especially is great when you crave something sweet!

    Thanks for sharing!!

  • #15 - Lindsey

    My graduate school adviser loved this book! I should probably read it sometime, it sounds awesome.

    As far as mindless eating tricks go…I try to live by the recommendation of “make sure you see what you eat.” In other words, instead of eating out of a wheat thins box, put a serving on a plate. It’s shocking how much less I eat when I plate my food!

  • #16 - Lauren at KeepItSweet

    This is so interesting! I definitely try to use smaller plates or bowls when I am eating more calorie-dense items. It does help. No one wants a huge plate with a tiny piece of lasagna or anything like that:-)

  • #17 - Katie @The Small Boston Kitchen

    So interesting!! Portion size is everything and it’s really hard, especially when you go out to dinner. I always think because I’m paying for it I should eat it all and I was totally raised to always finish what’s on my plate. You’ve got a lot of excellent points here!

  • #18 - MelissaNibbles

    Very interesting. I need to start drinking out of flukes. I want to try intuitive eating, but I’m scared!

    • #19 - Elina

      Do you have the IE book? I have a copy if you want to borrow it. I think it’s pretty empowering… even though it’s totally scary. I definitely know the feeling!

  • #20 - Shannon

    i really loved this book, perhaps it was its scientific approach 😉 although i wish we were immune now… I’m definitely more conscious of what plate I go for, trying to opt for the smaller one so it seems bigger…

  • #21 - CaSaundra

    This is super interesting–thanks for sharing! I definitely catch my self “shoveling” more food in when I am in noisy situations vs when I am eating in my kitchen and fully aware of how much I’ve eaten and my feeling of fullness.

  • #22 - Andrea

    Visiting from NYC Patty’s place. Great post! it’s so true. I may have to check out this book … sounds informative and interesting!

  • #23 - Kerstin

    Interesting! I always try to pick a small plate too!

  • #24 - Ways to Combat Mindless Eating « « Lose Weight Now ! Lose Weight Now !

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