December 2010 Issue

Avoid the Trap! — Experts Round Up Today’s Top Mindless Eating Pitfalls
By Sharon Palmer, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 12 No. 12 P. 30

When Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think hit bookstores in 2006, it opened both nutrition professionals’ and consumers’ eyes. Who knew that people were such slaves to the subtle eating cues that surrounded them every day? Sure, dietitians had been counseling patients to create a better food environment for years, but to read scientific data on the sheer power of factors such as plate size on caloric intake confirmed our worst fears—and then some.

Wansink, who directs the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and is president-elect of the Society for Nutrition Education, unleashed powerful data on how environmental influences make real differences in how much people eat. For instance, he found that people ate an average of 2.2 more candies each day when they were visible and 1.8 more candies when they were proximately placed on their desk vs. 2 meters away. Wansink even put nutrition experts to the test as he examined how much they consumed at an ice cream social when given different-sized bowls and spoons. Unaware, the nutrition experts served themselves 31% more ice cream when they were given a larger bowl and 14.5% more when they were given a larger ice cream scoop.

At the crux of the mindless eating philosophy is the notion that people don’t just overeat because they’re hungry. Wansink’s research showed that people overeat because of a multitude of factors, including the influence of family and friends, the size of food packages and plates, the way foods are described on labels and packages, the position of light on food, the colors of foods, the presence of candles, the shapes of food packages, food smells, distractions while eating, distances from which food is available, whether food is stored in cupboards, and the containers in which food is served or stored. Unlike in your grandmother’s time, today’s average person makes nearly 250 decisions about food every day, often without much thought.

“The danger in mindless eating is that it is hand-to-mouth, unconscious munching. When you are not aware of how much or when you are eating, it often leads to overconsumption of needless calories, a disregard for natural hunger and fullness cues, and inevitable excess pounds on the scale or inches on your waistline,” says Victoria Shanta Retelny, RD, who writes and teaches about mindful eating and will release her first book on healthful eating next year.

Mindless eating expert James Painter, PhD, RD, chair of the School of Family and Consumer Sciences at Eastern Illinois University in Chicago, has collaborated with Wansink on mindless eating research. He speaks on this topic about 50 times per year at conferences and produced the film Portion Size Me. Painter stresses that people will always mindlessly eat in today’s society. In fact, he published a study in September in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association that found people eat 20% more raisins when five boxes of raisins are left on their desk vs. five boxes in a drawer.

Are We Making a Dent in the Problem?
It’s been a few years since the mindless eating concept emerged. Wansink’s book became a best seller; mindless eating has been explored at conferences and in the media; and many dietitians include the concept in their nutrition education. Coupled with the overwhelming attention that the nation’s obesity epidemic has earned, one might assume that we’ve made some progress in mindless eating. But are we there yet?

“People may be more aware of mindless eating over the past decade, but there has not been much of an increase in utilization of strategies to eat less,” says Painter.

Kathryn E. Henderson, PhD, director of school and community initiatives at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, adds, “I have not seen evidence that people understand this idea any more today than yesterday. Plus, the whole premise of hidden factors and mindless eating is that they influence our intake despite our best intentions. It is my job to think about these issues all day long, and my eating can still be influenced by factors such as portion size and eating while paying attention to multimedia.”

“People still think that it doesn’t apply to them; they could never be fooled. If you moved the candy dish 6 ft away, they would never eat less,” says Wansink. “The constant is our ego and our inability to believe this could happen to us.” He refers to his July study, published in Physiology & Behavior, that compared the weight-loss results for a group that made environmental changes, such as using a smaller plate, putting food on the counter instead of the table, and moving the candy dish farther away, with a group that followed diet-related tips, such as eating oatmeal for breakfast each morning, from a nutritionist or magazine article. The group that made environmental changes experienced a weight loss of 1.5 lbs per month; the group that followed food-related tips gained 2.5 lbs per month.

Some small leaps of progress have occurred. Wansink presented the idea of 100-kcal packs to food companies, which has led to positive change. “They help 71% of people eat less, but it backfires for 29% of people,” reports Wansink on research in this area.

And Henderson believes federally regulated restaurant menu labeling is one bright spot. “There are two potential benefits here with respect to mindless eating: We will now know how many calories are in the items we order, which may help us manage our caloric intake, and some hypothesize that restaurants may reformulate their menu items to be lower in calories so that they don’t have to list an appetizer with, say, 1,400 kcal,” she says.

Today’s Top 10 Mindless Eating Traps
While the mindless eating concept is still relatively young, look at what’s changed since Wansink’s book first hit store shelves—from the rise of Internet social networking, where supplement ads bombard users, to the food truck scene, where more food choices await consumers at street corners. We asked experts to weigh in on today’s generation of top mindless eating traps for you to best help your clients stay ahead of the game.

1. The Ubiquity of Convenience
“The big thing is convenience of food. You can conveniently microwave meals … just about anywhere you want,” says Wansink. It’s true: People no longer have to feel hungry because food awaits them at virtually every corner—from the office vending machine and lobby food cart to the gas station and fast-food stop. The availability of food is forever expanding, making it even easier for people to mindlessly eat wherever their path takes them.

Retelny adds, “Cafés [and] coffee and snack shops are everywhere you go, such as bookstores, grocery stores, hardware stores, and museums. You never have to travel far to find food, even if you are not hungry.”

2. Nutrient-Poor Foods for the Taking
It wouldn’t be so bad if mindless eating triggers targeted nutrient-rich foods that pack a healthful punch. But in reality, mindless eating usually involves high-calorie junk foods. People need only check out the food inventory available at their local gas station or on food commercials during prime-time TV.

Henderson says, “Environmental cues to eat a lot of convenient, cheap, calorie-dense but nutrient-poor foods continue to overwhelm us. These foods are available almost everywhere at almost any time. They continue to be heavily marketed, especially to children.”

3. Megaportions Still Reign Supreme
“We still see huge portions everywhere—in restaurants and in packaged foods sold in stores,” says Henderson, who offers the example of “individual-sized” bags of chips, which typically contain two or more servings according to the label.

Packaged foods constantly fool consumers; for example, many food labels suggest that people cut individual pizzas, cookies, and microwaveable soup and noodle bowls in half, even though users may not notice the fine print on the label. And the “small plate movement” hasn’t appeared to make a measurable difference in some restaurant franchises. Some Panera Bread sandwiches have morphed into roughly triple the size of a standard sandwich, Jamba Juice “Power” servings of smoothies pack in 30 oz and 580 kcal in some varieties, and Outback Steakhouse serves a whopping 14-oz rib-eye steak that contains almost 1,200 kcal in meat alone.

“The restaurant industry won’t switch to smaller portions because people won’t pay more money for smaller portions. People want a deal. Bigger portions are still working,” says Painter.

Retelny adds, “In buffet-style restaurants, the ‘get your money’s worth’ syndrome abounds.”

4. Cheap Food
It’s easy to mindlessly eat when food purchases don’t break the bank. People can simply slip a little goody into their handbag or pocket for later, and they probably won’t even feel an economic pinch. If they think back in time, they might recall that this wasn’t always so.

Wansink says, “Food is really cheap. Fifty years ago, food took up 24% of your income. Now it takes up 6% of your income. As a result, you can buy anything you want. If you feel like a big candy bar, you can buy it.” Although Wansink isn’t for turning back the hands of time to an era when purchasing sufficient food supplies was even more difficult than it still is today for many lower-income families, he does believe that the abundance of cheap, low-quality foods has helped promote mindless eating.

5. Slurping Calories
Sugary beverages have received much attention in the war on obesity, and rightly so. People who drink one or more sodas per day are 27% more likely to be overweight than those who do not drink soda, and soda accounts for 43% of the increase in calorie consumption over the past 30 years, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

But how does this become a mindless eating issue? People don’t tend to compensate for calories consumed in beverages by cutting back elsewhere. And these days they can swill a 750-kcal coffee drink, sip on sports or energy drinks during the day, and swig from gigantic soda fountain cups on the way home. All of those beverage calories can go down quite mindlessly. Henderson also points to confusion when people read sugar-sweetened beverage labels, which often suggest two servings per individual bottle.

6. Labeling Guides That Backfire
Although numerous organizations have attempted to create package or shelf labeling systems that guide consumers to make more healthful choices, Wansink fears that such front-of-pack labeling programs might backfire. He says, “It’s easy to look at something and stop thinking and overact in other ways.” For instance, if people see a “green light” nutrition symbol on a food product, that may give them the signal to eat as much as they want, which can lead to much more eating dysfunction. Professionals have seen this sort of eating behavior in the past. Remember when people thought low-fat cookies were “healthful” and thus felt less guilty about eating the whole box?

7. Eating as a Side Activity
Painter believes that one of the biggest mindless eating traps today is “eating and doing something else, such as driving or watching TV. You’re eating without thinking. If you have an endless supply of food and you are paying attention to something else, it’s hard to stop eating.” People engage in much mindless eating during daily activities such as cooking dinner, watching a child’s soccer game, checking out YouTube, or working at their desk.

Henderson suggests, “Have a rule that eating is something you do while sitting down at a table in the kitchen, in the break room, or at a picnic table—in other words, somewhere designed for eating. You’d be surprised how much mindless eating you cut out. Plus, you’ll actually notice and enjoy your food.”

8. Mindless Grocery Shopping
Mindless eating can also hinge on how people shop for food. “Grocery shopping without a plan or list or while hungry or tired is a problem,” says Henderson. “Without a plan in this situation, we are vulnerable to marketing and product placement and tend to bring home more unhealthy foods. Once they are in the house, the battle is lost. If you don’t want it to be part of the family’s regular diet, don’t bring it home in the first place.”

Henderson suggests that if people want to enjoy a specific treat with their family, they should bring home only the amount they want their family to eat and leave it at that. Families might also go out for their special treat so they’re not stuck with leftovers that need to be polished off.

“That way, intake of the less-nutritious foods are at least a planned event rather than mindless snacking,” Henderson explains.

9. Club Store Binges
Many people are attracted to club stores for their reasonable prices; doing the math proves that the price per serving is a great bargain. Unfortunately, those large bins, boxes, bags, and crates of food can end up prompting mindless eating. It’s hard for people to stop at a 1-oz serving of chips when faced with a mammoth-sized bag. And when their freezer is jam-packed with unhealthful meal items, who’s to notice how many they eat each week?

Wansink has observed a phenomenon that occurs when people have a large volume of one particular food on hand: They have a desire to use it up, even if they don’t really like it.

Retelny adds, “As if the large-sized purchases at warehouse stores aren’t enough, you sample food while you shop and before leaving are enticed by a food court laden with high-fat, sodium-laden, sugary treats on the way out of the store—another opportunity to eat!”

Wansink suggests people who shop at club stores individually portion the items for storage as soon as they get home so they won’t be tempted to sit down with gigantic bags of food.

10. Appetizer Overload
People may find it hard to resist a sample of food when they’re waiting for dinner. That’s why Retelny singles out free appetizers at restaurant tables, such as chips or bread and olive oil, as a tempting mindless eating trap. This can even occur when people are dining at a friend’s house; they might find it hard to resist those cheese trays and hummus and pita bread platters when they’re mindlessly eating while socializing. By avoiding the chip bowl or bread basket when dining out and positioning themselves farther from the appetizer tray at social events, your clients can better avoid this mindless eating pitfall.

The Work Ahead
There’s more work to be done to change society’s eating environment and behavior. But Painter says that people should start by working on their own eating environment first. “If you change your diet environment, you will eat less. We can change our own microcosm, whatever we can control so that food is not everywhere,” stresses Painter.

“One strategy can be to get people outraged about the unhealthy environment, which can prompt them to advocate for broad change,” adds Henderson.

Many schools are calling out for positive change where nutrition is concerned. “We have met with some success in cleaning up the food environment in some schools, although we still have a long way to go. There is recent interest in ensuring that the childcare environment is a safe haven with respect to nutrition, and that is a good thing. However, the larger environment continues to facilitate overconsumption of unhealthy foods,” says Henderson.

Wansink challenges RDs to “start helping schools get healthier. It shouldn’t be that [children] can never have the things they like because then they wouldn’t eat school lunch. But we can keep nudging them to eat the healthier stuff.” In particular, Wansink urges for smarter lunchrooms. For example, he reports his findings that if you put fruit in a nice bowl, turn on a light, and make kids walk past it, you can increase fruit sales by 101%. (Readers can visit for more mindless eating tips for the school lunch program.)

The knowledge base on mindless eating can also move in a more positive direction. Painter says, “That’s the next step. We need people to start eating more of the good things. As long as we understand what makes us eat more, we can understand how to eat more fruits and vegetables. You can decrease obesity by increasing fruit and vegetable consumption. That’s where dietitians can come in and do some fun and interesting things.” For instance, “Take the Eagles Challenge” invites people to dine at Eagles Deli & Restaurant in Boston, one of the country’s most famous “pig-out” restaurants, and exercise appropriate portion control.

In a world of mindless eating traps, dietitians certainly have their jobs cut out for them. But perhaps by recognizing the most pervasive land mines, they can help clients learn how to sidestep them and begin to eat more mindfully.

— Sharon Palmer, RD, is a contributing editor at Today’s Dietitian and a freelance food and nutrition writer in southern California.