Un Cassoulet aux Haricots et Saucisses sur Riz . . . or is it?
This is the second in a 4-part discussion of the book Mindless Eating by Dr. Brian Wansink, in collaboration with fellow blogger, Joie de Vivre:
"Come join me as I discuss the 'skinny' on "The See-Food Trap" and "Family, Friends, and Fat". The tips gleaned from these studies are particularly useful to me in my own weight loss journey. Curious? Find out what they are!"Read the rest at Joie de Vivre: An Amateur Gourmet's Guide
For Part I of "Mindless" in Minnesota, click here!
Still Tangled on Mindless Eating
(photo from Amazon.com)
I really do have food on the brain. From the moment I wake up in the morning until the second I doze off at night, my thoughts are on eating, cooking, studying and blogging about it. Even as I'm consuming a meal, I'm already thinking about the next one. Is it an eccentric preoccupation or a strange obsession? Am I just passionately consumed by consumption or helplessly enslaved by edibles?
For now, I have been able to walk the tightrope between simply thinking about food and actually acting upon it but according to Dr. Wansink, the ability to maintain this balance is constantly under barrage by invisible influences within and around us.
Chapter 4 - The Hidden Persuaders Around Us
In the previous chapters, Wansink stated that both mental and visual perceptions serve as hidden persuaders which are triggered or reinforced by the way food is presented, from the label on a bottle of wine to the size of a dinner plate. These cues create anticipation of the amount of food we think should be eaten, which may then lead us to tailor our consumption toward overeating in order to meet those expectations and achieve satiety. Although he offers some strategies to counter these effects, such as using smaller dinnerware, Wansink points out in this chapter that the mere sight - or even a mental visualization - of food is enough to set off a Pavlovian urge to chow down.
It's not simply conjecture: in a 2002 study published in the journal Synapse (44.3.139-45), researchers at the US Department of Energy's Brookhaven National Laboratory observed elevated levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine (linked to pleasure and reward sensors), usually seen in drug addicts, in study participants who were only allowed to see or smell their favorite foods. Said lead investigator Nora Volkow:
"[This shows] that the dopamine system can be triggered by food when there is no pleasure associated with it since the subjects don't eat the food [emphasis mine]. This provides us with new clues about the mechanisms that lead people to eat other than just for the pleasure of eating, and . . . may help us understand why some people overeat."
These observations were made in the controlled environment of a research study but, as Wansink warns, there are no somber scientists in our daily lives to whisk away temptation when our brains our flooded with dopamine upon seeing some delicious treat. More often than not, we end up acting on our craving, especially if it is conveniently within reach.
And therein lies the solution (and my saving grace). I may think about food constantly but it's more difficult to eat a mental image than something that is right in front of me. So, Wansink suggests 'de-conveniencing' certain foods by storing them in out-of-the-way places like the top shelf of the cupboard or by eating them only in certain circumstances, such as while sitting at the dinner table. By forcing us to expend greater effort to access such food, he says, it also gives us a critical moment to re-consider our craving (93).
So far, Wansink has offered numerous studies on how our individual perceptions can influence our eating behaviors but in the following chapters, he identifies surprising new culprits, which left this Noodle steaming just a bit.
Chapter 5 - Mindless Eating Scripts
"One of life's great pleasures is to share food with family and friends. What we don't always realize is how strongly [they] influence what we eat. When we're with people we enjoy, we often lose track of how much we're eating."(Wansink, 95)
How much do we lose track? Wansink cites psychologist John DeCastro, whose research has found that the number of dining companions with whom one eats can greatly increase, by as much as double, the amount of food one consumes (97). Apparently, we are inclined to follow the lead of what he terms the 'pacesetters', the fellow diners whose eating patterns we attempt to mimic in a case of group behavioral conformity. Referring to a 2003 study that found people who ate less on their own consumed more when dining with a group, and vice versa, Wansink suggests that "if you tend to be a heavy eater, you should eat with the group. If you're a lighter eater, you should eat by yourself" (99). But as my dear mother-in-law would say when she's unconvinced by an argument, "That's very interesting."
A Noodle Christmas in the Philippines:
The food was delicious but the focus was family
While I do not disagree with Wansink's assessment that meal-sharing can lead to individual overeating, I do think that this conclusion falls short of a complete picture. For one thing, commensality - the act of eating together - is rarely undertaken with food as the central motivation. It is instead the means by which a group comes together to create or solidify bonds, whether it is a family sitting down for a holiday meal or co-workers on a lunch break at the local Ruby Tuesday's. By implying that 'light eaters' should eat alone or at least choose do so only with others who follow a similar consumption pattern, Wansink's strategy seems to ignore the critical, primarily social role that commensality performs.
It also fails to address the broader cultural issues that underlie the kinds of food that are consumed in this context. Wansink asserts that shared eating habits explain why "couples and families tend to be similar sizes" but he cites only "frequency, quantity, and time spent eating" as the main causes, without mentioning the quality of food (99). Keep in mind that many other societies engage in communal dining with few of the problems of overconsumption and obesity that underscore the debate here in the United States because the kinds of food eaten in those cultures may be of higher nutritional quality, i.e. fresh versus heavily processed ingredients.
Finally, I feel that there is a much more complex reason that 'heavy eaters' (which, to me, referred to overweight diners) eat less when dining with others than just following a lead. Group opinion is considered a primal and indirect form of social control: what others think of us, or what we believe they think of us, often drives conformity to prescribed public behaviors. Given what is arguably a widespread attitude in American culture that being overweight is a sign of lack of control or willpower, a person who is already heavy may be acutely sensitive of their food consumption in a group setting if they believe that others will judge them by it. In this context, the purpose of commensality is once again subverted for certain individuals. In both instances, the key to controlled eating in a group setting may lie more with changing social attitudes about the quality of food and opinions regarding body image and weight control.
Despite these concerns, I do support Wansink's central point in Chapter 5: what, when and how much we eat is often based not on physical and nutritional needs but rather on 'scripts' - from "We always eat popcorn with a movie" to "I don't want my date to think I'm a pig" or "It's the holidays/a party/a vacation." But please don't pick on the family dinner!
Chapter 6 - The Name Game
Thankfully, Wansink moves to another 'hidden persuader' of truly subliminal power** that belies the childhood recitation, "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me." According to the author, mere words have the ability to influence our food choices for better or for worse, creating certain expectations of eating behaviors mentioned in earlier chapters. Remember the North Dakota versus California wine experiment in Chapter 1, and the resulting effect on diners? By using descriptors drawn from four basic themes (geography, nostalgia, sensory and brand), food marketers and advertisers evoke a strong response that may determine our anticipation of enjoyment of the food and, consequently, how much we will eat (128). This can certainly prove to be a pitfall when dining out.
But the language used to describe food can have a positive effect, says Wansink, whose most recent study found that pre-school children ate twice as much vegetables when the produce were given names such as 'Dinosaur Broccoli Trees' and 'Tomato Bursts'. Similarly with adults, the resultant feelings of satisfaction and satiety with our meals can be managed by consciously forming these expectations ourselves at home.
"[W]e taste what we expect we'll taste," writes Wansink, so he suggests describing the food you prepare yourself with positive, evocative terms and creating a special atmosphere, for instance, by using pretty dinnerware or linens (138). Presumably, this strategy should make even a small portion feel super-sized. Does it work? Perhaps you can tell me with the recipe below . . .
Please join me and Joie de Vivre again next Friday as we continue our discussion of this fascinating book!
[**For an excellent study on the power of language, I recommend the PBS Frontline documentary, The Persuaders, which examines how marketers, advertisers, pollsters and pundits skillfully manipulate words and phrases to influence public and personal opinions]
A Stew by Any Another Name . . .
I refer to this simply as the 'bean dish', whose interchangeable primary ingredients - beans, meat, seasonings - make it a dependable regular in our dinner rotation. We've always enjoyed it, generic name and all, but I must admit that calling it a 'cassoulet' (though it barely qualifies as such) gives it a certain Gallic flair. Bon appétit!
A Humble Sausage and White Bean Stew
1 Tbsp grapeseed or canola oil
1 cup red onions, diced (about 1/2 large onion)
1 clove garlic, minced
10 oz chorizo* sausage (approx. 3 links, casings removed)
1 (15 oz) can white** beans such as cannellini or Great Northern, rinsed
1 (15 oz) can diced tomatoes
1/2 tsp ground chipotle pepper***
1/2 tsp oregano***
Feel free to change up the meats, beans, and flavorings! Some suggestions:
* Italian sausage, ground lamb
** black beans, red kidney, black-eyed peas
*** Italian, Greek, Indian seasonings and spices
1. Heat oil in a fry or sauté pan then add garlic and onions and sauté until soft;
2. Add chorizo, breaking it into small pieces, and sauté until cooked through;
3. Add beans and diced tomatoes and bring to a low simmer;
4. Add chipotle pepper and oregano and continue on a low simmer for 10-15 minutes, partially covered, and stirring occasionally;
5. Remove from heat and serve over rice or, as a stew, with a rustic bread.