Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, has spent years studying the unconscious thought processes that lead to our sometimes unfortunate eating habits. Among his findings, published in "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think" (Bantam, 2007) we're bound to think food tastes better if it's described with more flowery adjectives; we eat less when it's warm; and if food is left in front of us, no matter how bad it tastes, there's a good chance we'll keep picking at it as long as we're just sitting there. But fear not, Wansink has also come up with some easy strategies to for us to trick ourselves into thinking we're eating more than we are.
1. Buy Smaller Plates: It's all about presentation: If you put the same amount of food on a smaller plate, it'll look like a bigger serving. Simply switching from a 12.5" plate to a 10.5" plate will make you unconsciously serve 20 percent less food. "A smaller plate suggests what's called a smaller consumption norm," Wansink said. "It suggests a smaller amount of food that's normal, typical and appropriate." A larger plate does the reverse; it suggests that a big portion is normal. Similarly, if you repackage jumbo boxes of cereal or spaghetti into smaller plastic containers or baggies, you'll cut down on the amount of food you pour onto the plate in the first place, according to Wansink.
2. Don't Clean Your Plate. For a Super Bowl party, Wansink and his graduate students laid out a spread of buffalo wings and let a crowd of hungry MBA students have at them. Throughout the night, they had waitresses occasionally clear the bones from some tables, but leave the other tables' remains alone. The students who were left sitting in front of a plate of bones could see exactly how may wings they'd consumed and that knowledge was reflected in how much they ended up eating. Those whose places were cleared ate seven wings throughout the night, while the students whose places weren't cleared, had five each. Wansink adds that readers have emailed him with tips they've come up with to combat this phenomenon. "If they're eating candy, like little candy bars, they'll keep the wrappers in front of them," he said. "If they're at a party, they'll keep caps of bottles in their pockets so they can remember how much they've had to drink."
3. No Bagging It: Eating straight out of a bag of snack food is dangerous because you don't get a sense of how much you're consuming. For example, Wansink's team gave two groups of adults half-pound and one-pound bags of M&Ms, then had them eat as much as they wanted while watching a video. The people holding the half-pound bags ate 71 M&Ms, on average; in the same amount of time, the people eating the pound bags ate 137 M&Ms, almost twice as much. So, to avoid mindless consumption, don't grab a bag of chips and settle in for your favorite show. Instead, serve all your snacks on a tray or in a bowl.
4. Watch out for Group Grazing. In general, if you eat with someone else instead of alone, you'll ingest 35 percent more than you normally would; if you have seven or more dining partners, you'll eat almost twice as much as you would alone. Why? "You pay less attention to what you're eating," Wansink said. "You're not monitoring how much you eat, compared to when you're eating by yourself. And you tend to sit a lot longer, and the longer you sit the more you tend to eat." When eating in a group, try to start eating last and pace yourself with the slowest eater--that'll ensure you ingest the least possible volume, Wansink counsels. And leave a little bit of food on your plate so you're not tempted to get another serving you don't really want.
5. Don't Trust Your Own Judgment: Most people dramatically underestimate how many calories they've consumed. And their assessments are particularly inaccurate when they think they're eating at a healthy restaurant. Wansink surveyed McDonald's and Subway customers to find that the Subway diners—who assumed they were eating at a healthier restaurant—didn't pay attention to calorie counts and packed on fatty extras such as mayonnaise, potato chips and cookies. As a result, they consumed a third more calories than they thought they had. The McDonald's diners had a more realistic assessment of their meal; they acknowledged that they hadn't chosen the most health-friendly lunchtime locale and only underestimated their calorie intake by 25 percent. Wansink, who calls this effect the "health halo," said its repercussions extend beyond lunchtime. "Later on, some people end up indulging with snacks and even a larger dinner, believing they did their body right [earlier]," he said. Wansink's tip: Double the number of calories you think you've eaten and you'll be much more accurate in your assessment of your intake.
For more tips from Wansink, check out mindlesseating.org