Small serving, big flavor
This is the first in a 4-part discussion of the book Mindless Eating by Dr. Brian Wansink, in collaboration with fellow blogger, Joie de Vivre:
"It would be too hard to discuss ALL the studies without endangering myself of copyright infringement, so I will pick one or two from the section we are discussing that I find most relevant to my own weight loss efforts and discuss that. Today, I'll be discussing the studies, "Stale Popcorn and the Frail Willpower", "The Prison Pounds Mystery", and "Big Plates, Big Spoons, Big Servings." Come join me at my little sidewalk cafe! "Read the rest at Joie de Vivre: An Amateur Gourmet's Guide
Tangled on Mindless Eating
During a discussion in a "Politics of Eating" class a few semesters back, I was carrying on about the deep personal meanings underlying my food choices when another student raised his hand to interject. Regarding me with equal parts pity and amused contempt - a look young adults generally reserve for theme park mascots, old men in black knee socks and sandals, and now, middle-aged classmates who apparently transferred from Clown College - this fresh-faced lad stated unequivocably, "I really don't think anyone thinks about their food that much. I just eat what I like when I'm hungry." Out of the mouths of babes . . .
(photo from Amazon.com)
This belief that our food choices are determined simply by hunger, taste preferences and mood is not only widespread but also explains many of our poor eating habits, according to consumer psychologist Brian Wansink, PhD. Although most of us would like to think that we're too savvy to be gulled by unseen forces, he reveals that our own senses and perceptions are the main culprits in overeating. Wansink, a former marketing professor and founder of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, has made it his life's work to figure out why people eat the way they do and he shares his fascinating research in the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. The following are my thoughts on specific topics covered in each of the first three chapters.
Chapter 1: The Mindless Margin - 'As Fine as North Dakota Wine' (pp. 19-25)
In his introduction, Wansink refers to 'hidden persuaders' - the unconscious yet powerful cues that influence our consumption, from the size of our food containers to the physical environment surrounding us as we eat. But they can also be as intangible as our personal opinions and pool of knowledge. In this chapter, Wansink describes how two sets of diners were given complimentary glasses of the same wine (the venerable Charles Shaw, a.k.a. 'Two-Buck Chuck') before they were served the exact same meals. However, half the patrons were told they were drinking a California vintage while the other half believed they were sipping North Dakota's finest.
At the end of the evening, the diners who drank from bottles with a California winery label ate 11% more food than their counterparts who drank the same, albeit North Dakotan, vino. Why? It seems that the positive connotation of the West Coast's reputation for world-class vineyards was transferred onto the meal and gave diners the green light to indulge themselves in a fine dining experience. The California imbibers therefore succumbed to the cues of their own perceptions and ate mindlessly, says Wansink.
"[O]nce they were given a free glass of 'California' wine, they said to themselves, "This is going to be good." Once they concluded it was going to be good, their experience lined up to confirm their expectations. They no longer had to stop and think . . . [t]hey had already decided."(Wansink, 22)
The same kind of influence shows up in the 'health halo' phenomenon described by Wansink's colleague and collaborator, Pierre Chandon, a marketing professor at INSEAD in France, who found that people justified eating more of certain foods because the fat-free, no-trans-fats, and low-calorie labels cast them as 'healthy' meals. Whether it's a perception of health or the assumption of fine cuisine, we can easily be persuaded to eat more than we need.
Chapter 2: The Forgotten Food - 'We Believe Our Eyes, Not Our Stomach' (pp. 43-5)
They say that the eyes don't lie but when it comes to food, they don't quite tell the whole truth. In this section, Wansink cites Barbara Rolls, author of The Volumetrics Eating Plan, whose research revealed that many people determine satiety - the point at which one is satisfied - not by how full they feel but rather by how much food they are used to eating.
"Scores of studies have shown that we typically eat about the same amount or volume of food each day, and even at each meal. Rolls' work emphasizes that if a person thinks he [or she] ate less than that typical volume, [he or she will] think [they're] still hungry."(Wansink, 45)
Only 55 calories . . .
This struck close to home. I usually have a daily, late-afternoon snack of little pretzel crackers
topped with cashew butter and creamed honey. As an incorrigible calorie-counter, I've measured out exactly how many crackers (11) and how much topping (2 tablespoons) constitute my allotted calories. But I never realized that my perfect little system of snacking depended on a specific brand of crackers - Trader Joe's Pretzel Slims - until I ran out and had to buy another kind at the local grocery. Although they were the same shape, texture and flavor as my standby, they differed in a big way, literally. Double the size of the TJ crackers, I needed only 5 of these new crisps for the same amount of calories; that's when the trouble began.
. . . but also 55 calories
As Rolls observed in her studies, I equated satiety with the number of crackers on my plate; I ended up consuming more calories because I didn't feel satisfied until I had eaten 11 crackers as I normally did. Thankfully, I came to my senses but this is a common pitfall for many people. Wansink, however, considers this skewed perception of proportion as a possible, powerful tool to alleviate overeating: by making a small portion appear to be as big as a usual serving, it may actually make a diner feel just as full. How, you might ask, can this be achieved?
Chapter 3: Surveying the Tablescape - 'Big Plates, Big Spoons, Big Servings' (pp. 65-8)
The examples cited by Wansink from Rolls' research include pumping air into smoothies and adding copious amounts of lettuce and tomatoes to a hamburger. As tempting as it may be, subsisting on smoothies and burgers alone is counterproductive to mindful eating. Instead, we can find the tools we need in our cupboards.
Referring to the size-contrast illusion (formally known as the Ebbinghaus Illusion), Wansink notes that the perceived amount of food correlates to the size of its background or surrounding (i.e. the plate). To demonstrate this, Wansink and his team gave unwitting participants at an ice cream social either large or small bowls and spoons with which to dish out dessert for themselves. By now, it should be no surprise to learn that those with larger vessels and utensils scooped up 57% more than their counterparts. In short, when a container makes the amount of food look small, a diner may think that they're eating less than normal (see Chapter 2 above).
Of all the points and strategies discussed in the first three chapters of Mindless Eating, I found the idea of making meal portions appear larger by serving it on smaller plates was the easiest eat-less/feel-full strategy to implement because it doesn't involve counting calories, changing recipes or excluding certain foods.
So to test it out, I made a favorite dish, curry laksa, whose ingredients, such as thick udon noodles and creamy coconut milk, make it both hard to resist and rather high in calories. Keeping in mind the book's theory that size really does matter, I served it in a way that visually increased the volume without increasing the calories (Wansink, 45).
Please join me and Joie de Vivre again next Friday as we continue our discussion of this fascinating book!
This is a shortcut recipe, using Dragonfly brand laksa paste that I found at a local Asian grocery. For other brands, please follow the directions given on the label. For the more skilled and adventurous, check out this recipe for Curry Mee by Rasa Malaysia.
A full bowl = a sated appetite
Makes 2 servings
4 cups water
1/2 cup curry laksa paste
1 cup coconut milk
1/2 lb fresh shrimp, shelled and deveined OR 1/2 lb white fish (such as haddock)
2-3 plum tomatoes
10-12 oz fresh udon noodles (found in the refrigerated cases at Asian markets)
green onions, sliced thinly on the diagonal
Optional: 1 cup bok choy or napa cabbage, sliced into strips
1. Bring water to a boil and add curry laksa paste;
2. Reduce heat to medium and add coconut milk, allowing soup to simmer;
3. Add shrimp or fish and cook until just done; if opting for cabbage leaves, add them at this point;
4. Add udon noodles and allow to heat through;
5. Add tomatoes last and cook only for a minute or two before serving;
6. Serve in your smallest cereal bowls, ideally no more than 5.5" in diameter, and top with cilantro and green onions.
7. Enjoy your bountiful feast!