BOOK REVIEWS: Mindless Eating
Reprinted from Eating Disorders Review
November/December 2007 Volume 18, Number 6
©2007 Gürze Books
Although it is directed toward a lay audience, this scholarship-packed and scholarship-backed volume by Brian Wansink, Professor of Consumer Behavior and Director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, is one that every professional working with patients with eating disorders and obesity will want to read through, think about, and use to inform clinical practice. Based on research at his laboratory and that of perhaps half a dozen other major research groups around the country and the world, Dr. Wansink elucidates the numerous hidden persuaders that operate on the roughly 200 food choices we each make daily. Based on these observations, he surmises that "mindless eating" in response to the numerous environmental cues embedded in our daily lives accounts for a considerable amount of the overeating, overweight, and obesity currently besetting our culture. His contention is that with relatively straightforward attention to a number of these cues, every person might be able to reduce his or her caloric intake by 100 to 200 calories per day without any subjective distress or awareness (the "mindless margin"). Over time, this might help a large number of individuals lose a reasonable amount of weight without great effort.
Many of the cues result from an assortment of psychophysiological biases built into our brains and minds, assuring that we are significantly predisposed toward being wrong about estimating quantities that we ingest. Consequently, diverse sensory and social cues generally lead to our consuming more than we think we do and more than we require. Through laboratory research conducted in restaurants, and at party venues, movie theatres, and other real-world settings, Wansink and his many collaborators have studied what we actually do in addition to what we think we do--as they vary sensory and social cues. We think we eat less than we do under a variety of conditions, and certain social settings significantly enhance the likelihood that we'll eat more than we intend to. Based on nature, temperament, and environmental differences, people differ considerably with respect to their personal vulnerabilities to these diverse cues, so that coming up with strategies to counter mindless influences has to be sorted out on an individual basis. This is not a "one-size-fits-all" story.
Among the numerous hidden persuaders are convenience, warehouse clubs, family eating patterns, feeding and eating "scripts" associated with gender and caregiving, aromas, naming and labeling foods, ambience, plate and glass sizes and shapes, utensils, comfort-food conditioning, nutritional gatekeepers (the shoppers and cooks in the home), and fast-food, convenience-food factors. Notably, Dr. Wansink, who's had research funding from the food industry and the military, among others, doesn't see an underlying capitalist-industrial "plot" to make us fat. Rather, he sees corporations responding to consumer buying patterns, and doing what they need to do to move product and make profit. Working with industry, he's come up with a number of "win-win" strategies that help reduce portion size, for example (as with 100-calorie snack packaging for children's snacks), while providing concurrent successful marketing strategies for food companies.
Each chapter is peppered with practical implications based on the research that should assist those hoping to reduce eating and lose weight to reduce their "mindless margin." In pulling this all together, Dr. Wansink suggests that if an individual is able to focus on just the top three personally salient strategies at a time (of many more available and described in this book), his or her "mindless margin" may be sufficiently re-engineered to make considerable progress.
Several concluding appendices address FAQs and additional resources for those who find the ideas and challenges in the book useful. There's a back-up website at www.mindlesseating.org.
Although the research reported in this book is fascinating and provocative, most of the suggestions are based on very short-term studies. What the long-term effect of using these strategies might prove to be is unknown. Ultimately, controlled studies will be needed to test how effective a "mindless" re-engineering approach might be in the long run to influence food ingestion and weight, and to what extent individuals contending with various types and degrees of obesity, hyper-grazing, binge eating, and binge eating disorder can utilize and stick to these patterns (without succumbing to the numerous daily counter-cues). But, until that research is done, I'm going to build this book into my treatment planning and suggest that patients with binge eating problems and obesity read it. Discussing the sorts of individually designed lifestyle alterations that might help reduce the extent to which mindless eating impacts their lives couldn't hurt.