Pear, Walnut and Feta Salad with Pomegranate Dressing
This is the conclusion of a 4-part discussion of the book Mindless Eating by Dr. Brian Wansink, in collaboration with fellow blogger, Joie de Vivre. Please be sure to join her as she shares her final thoughts on this fascinating work as part of her March French Fridays at Joie de Vivre: An Amateur Gourmet's Guide.
A Little Less Tangled on Mindless Eating
(Photo from Amazon.com)
On reading the final chapter of this book and considering the previous discussions, there was a nagging sense of familiarity about Dr. Wansink's thoughts on improving our eating habits that I couldn't quite pin down. And then, it came to me: although he is referred to as a 'food psychologist', he actually sounded a lot more like an economist.
How does the science of economics fit into a discussion of food habits? Quite well, as a matter of fact. The term economics is rooted in the Greek word oikonomia - meaning 'management of the household - and refers to the study of the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services (source: About.com). In short, the management of consumption in one's household sounds very much like the subject at hand - managing our own eating!
As a summary of the whole book, Chapter 10 frames Wansink's main themes in a way that echoes economic principles of trade-offs, margins and incentives. So, as we end our discussion of Mindless Eating, I would like to explore this connection between food and the dismal science.
Chapter 10 - Mindlessly Eating Better
Wansink's study of consumer behavior is closely linked to microeconomics, which deals with individual decision-making rather than the broader issues of national economy. Why is that important to a discussion on eating better? I think that the key theme of this book is that we make decisions about food - one of the most essential requirements for life - with much less thought and consideration than we do other, less critical choices (e.g. "What should I watch on TV tonight?").
Perhaps it's because we are constantly having to make these choices: Wansink estimates that, on average, each person faces 200 food-related decisions per day (pp. 1, 209). It's no wonder that we switch to autopilot! But in doing so, we end up being manipulated, influenced and conditioned to overeat. Wansink's strategies to re-calibrate our habits to what he calls 'mindless better eating' take their cues from the way we make all of our other economic decisions.
(Photo from Amazon.com)
This brings us to N. Gregory Mankiw, Harvard professor of economics and former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, whose book, Principles of Economics, is considered the standard textbook for the subject. It's from his "10 Principles of Economics" that I found parallels to Wansink's main points in this final chapter.
Principle #1 - People Face Trade-offs
It's summed up quite nicely with a food-related phrase,"There's no such thing as a free lunch", which simply means that we have to give up one thing in order to achieve another. This makes an excellent tool for re-engineering eating habits, says Wansink.
"Food trade-offs state, 'I can eat x if I do y.' For example, I can eat dessert if I've worked out . . . [It's] great because we don't have to deny ourselves a food we love. We just have to make a small concession in the name of good health. Food trade-offs also put us back in charge of our food decisions by raising the 'price we pay' for overeating." (212)
And what is that price? It all depends on you.
Principle #2 - The Cost of Something is What You Give Up to Get It
In making trade-offs, we usually weigh the costs and benefits of our decision. However, they differ from person to person, which is why Wansink hesitates when asked to name his 'Top Three Tips' for better eating. By singling out certain strategies, it would almost certainly leave out other ways that may work better for some people. Appendix A of the book illustrates this point: five well-known and very different diets of the past decade are described, along with their pros and cons. Each of these programs has legions of devotees who would attest to the effectiveness of their chosen plan but each also has different costs and benefits whose value may vary with every individual. For instance, would you consider rapid weight loss worth some bad breath and nausea, as with the Atkins plan (223)?
Wansink feels that the concept of eating right all too often involves some kind of deprivation and, quite frankly, takes the fun out of eating. Instead, we should focus on eating better, which "can mean eating less, eating without guilt, eating more nutritiously, or eating with greater enjoyment" (209). The best part, says Wansink, is that it can be achieved with small steps if we focus on the 'mindless margin'.
Principle #3 - Rational People Think at the Margins
According to Mankiw, 'thinking at the margin' means making incremental changes to what you are already doing (Principles of Economics [2nd ed.], 6). This also applies to what Wansink calls 'the mindless margin' - the "zone in which we can either slightly overeat or slightly undereat without being aware of it . . . [it's] a calorie range where we feel fine and are unaware of small differences" (30). But those small differences of 100-200 extra calories can add up over the course of a year and result in additional pounds.
The solution lies in the economic definition - making small changes to your current activities. In Appendix B, Wansink describes 5 Diet Danger Zones - common situations in which mindless eating is likely, such as during parties or at restaurants - and gives examples of what small changes can be made. For instance, people who wait to eat only at mealtimes are likely to eat more and very fast; he suggests that food be pre-plated in the kitchen and not served family-style so that 'seconds' are not easily reachable (228). Wansink points out that more of these small changes are suggested at the end of each chapter.
Finally, we come to the last parallel between eating and economics.
Principle #4 - People Respond to Incentives
In Wansink's view, these small changes are reasonable and reachable. More importantly, they help in steadily creating new, better habits instead of a sudden, extreme change of course that may be effective in the short-term but unsustainable in the long haul. He likens it to the difference between running and walking: the latter is slower but it will eventually get you where you want to be and with much less sweat (218). So what is the incentive? For me, it's summed up neatly by Wansink:
"We can turn the food in our life from being a temptation or a regret to something we guiltlessly enjoy." (209)That's good enough for me.
I hope you've enjoyed reading these posts on Mindless Eating as much as I've enjoyed writing them! I want to thank my friend and fellow blogger, Joie de Vivre, for inviting me to share her March French Fridays book discussions; if you haven't already done so, please head over to Joie de Vivre: An Amateur Gourmet's Guide for her take on this book and other great posts.
Pear, Walnut and Feta Salad with Pomegranate Dressing
Last night was Pizza Night Thursday and while I wasn't about to give that up, I did make a trade-off. I told myself I could savor every bite of pizza without guilt if I had a salad before dinner instead of dessert afterward. My compromise was to add pear slices and toasted walnuts and dress it with a tangy-sweet pomegranate vinaigrette. As sweet as an after-dinner treat!
A tasty and healthy trade-off
For the dressing:
1/4 cup pomegranate molasses*
1/4 cup olive oil
1 to 2 Tbsps Balsamic vinegar
1/4 tsp salt
*Pomegranate molasses may be found at Mediterranean or Middle Eastern markets. For this recipe, I made my own using POM Wonderful and a simple recipe from the aptly-named Simply Recipes. Click here for the very easy instructions.
Combine all of the above ingredients and whisk until well-blended. Feel free to adjust ingredient amounts to taste.
For the salad:
Bosc pear, sliced thinly
Walnuts, lightly toasted
Crumbled feta cheese
Other suggestions: spring mix, arugula, apples, strawberries, pine nuts, sliced almonds, prosciutto, red onion