"Mindless" in Minnesota, Part IV: The Last Bite

Friday, March 27, 2009 56 comments

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.

For more of "Mindless" in Minnesota, read Parts One, Two and Three.

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:

Romaine lettuce
Bosc pear, sliced thinly
Walnuts, lightly toasted
Crumbled feta cheese

Other suggestions: spring mix, arugula, apples, strawberries, pine nuts, sliced almonds, prosciutto, red onion


  • Scate said...

    trade-offs - I often trade in things for food or baking. Whether its time or my skinny jeans - I am working on making sure it is not 'mindless'. Thanks - this series has been great!

  • Chef E said...

    I am making that salad one day soon, I love pears and all the other ingredients. You and Joie are just keeping me moving right along with this stuff and I love ya for it!

    This part- How does the science of economics fit into a discussion of food habits? Wow, I loved what you wrote...we do make choices, so why is it so hard for us to make the right food choices...emotions related to the eating habits of our childhood, but we are no longer children. We are adults who should love ourselves and others around us to be healthy...having my son and hubby after my daughters death brought me back down to earth in this...love they self, and you love completely!

    Sorry the soap box is put back under the sink :)

  • Joie de vivre said...

    Bravo Tangled Noodle! I have loved, loved, loved, your discussions. You are so intelligent and witty girl. Thank you for collaborating with me and lending your incredible writing talents to my Friday columns. You are amazing.

  • Heather S-G said...

    I've really enjoyed these discussions! If only I could make myself actually take heed (more often...or more permanently). This salad looks fabulous & thanks for directing me to the recipe for the POM Molasses...just received a case and need some things to do w/ it!!! :)

  • Maria Verivaki said...

    you've just made my favorite salad - i love pomegranate, and regret the passing of the season (they are now available as imported products but they dont have the same good taste as the local ones)

  • Anonymous said...

    I enjoyed these Friday discussions! The salad looks fabulous - love the pear and the pomegranate dressing is wonderful!

  • Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

    I so enjoy these Friday get-togethers. Thank you for reading what some of us don't have time to do. I really don't like to give up things but he has a really good point and it gives me something to think about.
    Your salad looks terrific. I had better make it soon before pears disappear from my market.

  • Anonymous said...

    Interesting discussions, I wonder if there's a study by a behavioral economist that talks to these issues. Having just read some great books on these subjects, I am not convinced consumers are entirely rational. But I certainly agree, that all the excitment is in the margins - fancy that. When it comes down to it, its the little things that count.

    The recipe looks fantastic - I love that combination its very refreshing.

  • Daily Spud said...

    "each person faces 200 food-related decisions per day" - that one got me thinking about the premise of The Onmivore's Dilemma as described by Michael Pollan - that the seemingly simple question of "what shall I eat?" is actually quite a tricky one for us humans. There can be so much psychology behind our food decisions. I very much like the positive connotation of "eating better" as opposed to "eating right" and I think that we should aim to do whatever it takes to be able to enjoy our food without having to embark on some massive guilt-trip afterwards!

  • Kiezie said...

    Great series of posts!! I love the comparisons. The salad is great too -- feta and pears is one of my favorite salad additions! I've never seen pomegranite molasses, I'll have to keep my eye out for it!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Whew! It's been a long day but I'm finally home!

    Spryte - Thank you! Wansink does provide very practical suggestions but it never seems as easy in 'real' life, does it? I'm a bit behind on my blog readings but I can't wait to check out your new, re-vamped site!

    Forager - Thanks! It was actually quite filling, too. I wasn't at all hungry for any dessert after the pizza!

    Scate - Thank you! I live my life by the 'trade-off' philosophy. It helps me manage my expectations so that I know that I can't have everything!

    Jennifer - Thanks! The dressing was so easy to make; my husband is not much into 'sweet' dressings but it pairs up really well with saltier ingredients.

    Chef E- I think you'll enjoy the salad! And I'm really trying to keep in mind the importance of celebrating life rather than spend most of my time worrying, fretting or obsessing about calories. It helps when you have loving support, as you know very well! 8-)

    Gera - It really was like a full meal! It was meant only as the appetizer before our pizza but I was so full, I actually asked my husband for the smallest slices of pizza. That never happens! 8-)

    Joie - You are a gem for having shared you feature with me! I enjoyed it immensely and hope we can do it again in the future. Thank you so very, very much!

    Elra - The dressing turned out really well although I'm glad I added the balsamic vinegar because the molasses turned out quite sweet!

    Girlichef - I got my package, too, on the same night I made this salad (Thurs). I knew right away that I wanted to try a salad dressing. A lot of recipes called for the seeds, not the juice so I was happy to have found Simply Recipe's molasses instructions. I think you'll enjoy it!

    Bob - With all the great dishes you make, I'm sure you'll come up with something totally original!

    Duo Dishes - Thank you! I was so happy it turned out. I've only ever tried to make a simple oil&vinegar dressing - this was the first step in making something with a little more oomph!

    Mediterranean Kiwi - I can imagine that you get the most wonderful pomegranate fruits!

    5 Star - Thank you! The pears were actually my husband's idea; he recalled a similar salad elsewhere and asked me to incorporate it somehow. It was easy with the dressing although next time, I might try for a more tart flavor. The molasses turned out even sweeter than I thought.

    Sam - Thank you! The salad was meant as an appetizer for dinner but was actually quite filling with the nuts and cheese. 8-)

    I really enjoyed reading this book and writing about it even more so! Trade-offs can be tough but once I get over the initial hump, I find that I don't miss the item that was let go as much as I thought.

    Oysterculture - Many of the most prominent behavioral economists such as Thaler and Kahneman (a psychologist but Nobel winner for econ, nonetheless) tend to focus research toward national policy rather than something as specific as individual eating habits. Wansink really represents some of the most in-depth research on 'food psychology' and consumer behavior, much of which is only given brief mention in the book. Another econ Nobel prizewinner, Herbert Simon, advanced the idea of "bounded rationality" - that we are only partly rational and influenced by biases that lead us to make decisions that are not always in our best interests. Comfort food might fall under that category, I think! 8-)

    The salad was turned out well - I hope you try it sometime!

    Daily Spud - Hear, hear! I tried to think back during my day if I could ID all the times I make food decisions. I'm not sure I reached 200 but I'd say some food-related thought crosses my mind every few minutes.

    For a while, I lost that enjoyment of food and eating amid constant worrying over calorie counts. It was no fun for me or for the people around me. So let's hear it for eating better and enjoying life!

    Curiousdometic - I'm not sure if it would taste the same with regular molasses. Pomegranate has a naturally tart flavor that you might not get with regular, in which case you might have to add extra balsamic vinegar. I've never tried just regular molasses - maybe honey would be a better substitute.

    BCGW - Thank you! I wish I'd used bigger chunks of feta but when you're hungry, perfect food styling is the least of your concerns! 8-)

    ChefBliss - Thank you! I'm so pleased you enjoyed the post. If you don't find the pom molasses, making it yourself was so easy. Now I'm thinking of other uses for it!

    Heather - Thanks! I followed basic vinaigrette proportions but the key was the pomegranate molasses! The method to make it yourself was amazingly simple.

    Sarah - Thank you! Believe me, there is no way I would EVER give up pizza! 8-)

  • Anonymous said...

    I'm going to miss these discussions. They have been wonderful!

    As someone who probably thinks about food much more than the average person, I have a Very Lot of opportunities to make good-for-me (or not so good-for-me) choices. I will try to always be Mindful.

  • Sapuche said...

    I sometimes wonder how society got to its current state of confusion over food. I hate to keep returning to the tired theme of “When I lived in Vietnam,” but (*sigh*) when I lived in Vietnam one could look anywhere and find vendors selling cheap, nutritious meals that usually included rice, fish, vegetables, soup, and iced tea. I can’t help thinking that when this is what you see around you all the time – including the smaller portions that are served – you automatically think in the same terms when you cook for yourself and your family. But maybe that notion’s too simplistic. Also, my weight inevitably goes down about ten pounds when I live in Vietnam…and quickly climbs back up when I return to the U.S. I'm certain it has to do with the different food choices I have as well as the mindset I bring to them.

    Sorry – I know I need to learn to be shorter-winded in my comments. : (

    Thank you for presenting all this information in such a clear and thought-provoking way! I’ve really enjoyed reading these posts.

  • gastroanthropologist said...

    I think food is tough to make decisions on because you need it to survive, but at the same time it provides so many joys. It also has so many unintended consequences when eaten in excess or too much of the "wrong" thing. Enjoyed the series and that's a gorgeous looking salad!

  • Lori said...

    Excellent final discussion! The phrase that sparked my interest was about how eating right implies giving up something. I think this is a very popular school of thought among society when trying to adopt healthy habits. Of course, those of us who cook and blog about it know that this is not the case at all. I like the term eating well as opposed to eating right.

    Love this recipe. I've always been a big fan of feta and pears on my salad. This dressing takes it to a new level! Yum!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Beancounter - I'm not so sure either but remember: trade-offs! Some cultural foodways definitely don't lend themselves well to Wansink's suggestions - for instance, he says not to put too many choices on the table but when I look back on my childhood dinners, there were always multiple dishes. But then again, he also stresses that different strategies work for different people - it's just a matter of finding the right one.

    Sophie - Thanks! I'm having another go at it tonight, this time with prosciutto and pine nuts. Can't wait!

    Nazarina - Thank you so much! I'm happy that you enjoy coming over for a read!

    OPC - I'll miss it too: it gave me some structure and a schedule to follow! 8-) If it's true that we make 200 food decisions each day, then I think we can cut ourselves some slack if a few of them aren't the best!

    Sapuche - I really appreciate your comments so please feel free to write as much as you'd like! My recent visit to the Philippines echoes what you've noted about your time in Vietnam - food vendors, stalls, and restaurants are everywhere (at the malls, every other shopfront seems to be an eatery) and yet most Filipinos are relatively slender. I'm still mulling it over and the only thing that I can say is that the attitude toward food and eating there seems to be more relaxed, whereas here, I am often thinking in terms of limits, controls, and constraints about my food habits. To me, the discussion of food in America seems like a series of proscriptions: don't eat fast food; don't eat too much; don't eat food that comes from great distances; don't eat food that hasn't been grown a certain way. The motivation behind them is worthy but does it come at the cost of losing enjoyment in the act of eating?

    Gastroanthropologist - Thank you! As you can see from my reply to Sapuche, thinking about food can really get me in a twist (or in a tangle, as it were!) That's what I'm trying to find - the balance between food as nutrition for life and as enjoyment of life!

    Lori - Thanks! My favorite salad flavors are now that mix of salty and sweet, like feta cheese or prosciutto with a fruity dressing. And the part about eating better is also the one that most resonated with me! When I worry about eating 'right', it always seems to be accompanied by guilt and that's no fun.

    Carolyn - Thank you! The molasses recipe is so basic but it yields an awesome ingredient! Now, I'm trying to think of other recipes in which to incorporate it.

    Foodie w/Little Thyme - Thanks! I need all the spring reminders as the weather here in MN refuses to cooperate with the calendar!

  • Dee said...

    This post is all good! The majority of people need to be more "mindful" of what they eat. I believe I would love to try this salad, it looks positively wonderful! Thanks for another thought provoking post!

  • Spring Girl said...

    The only problem I can see with plating up in the kitchen is you might actually end up with a lot more on your plate than you would have otherwise chosen for yourself and then it gets hard to refuse.

    Thanks! I've really enjoyed the book discussion. Are you planning on doing more?

  • Admin said...

    Wow, you got all kinds of flavor and texture going on here. I made a similar salad last Saturday. I decided to add homemade candied walnuts instead of regular toasted walnuts and found that the latter would have been a better choice (which is what you do here). The sweetness from the pear and the dressing is enough.

  • Claudia said...

    I work at home and "mindless eating" takes a hold of me. Particularly in the winter. Or, it's just there - so I partake. Knowing I am partaking.The vinaigrette sounds delicisou. That would eb something new in this house. Will bookmark it. I love all the ingredients.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Dee- Thank you! Eating better and mindfully is my goal now, rather than just eating to lose or maintain my weight. I hope you'll enjoy the salad if you do try it!

    Spring Girl - That's a very good point: who would do the pre-plating and would they put an amount that everyone would be happy with? If not, seconds would be hard to avoid. Or if it was too much, our 'clean plate' mentality might actually make one finish more food than wanted. There really are no easy answers, are there? As for more book discussions, I don't have any planned for now although Joie de Vivre is starting her new French Fridays discussion. But thanks for asking and it is something I'm considering!

    Michele - Thank you! I originally wanted a honey-balsamic dressing but I saw a blurb that said fruit molasses could be substituted. I had pomegranate juice and found the recipe for molasses at Simply Recipes, and voila! Making it yourself is super-easy but I'm also going to keep an eye out at Mediterranean or Middle Eastern markets for ready-made. I hope you try it!

    Jenn - Please do try it! The pom molasses can be pretty sweet but adding a bit more balsamic vinegar can take the edge off. And the book really is a fascinating and enjoyable read!

    Natashya - Thank you! I usually have very plain-type salads but this is the kind I wouldn't mind eating as a full meal.

    Leela - Thanks! Definitely the pear and dressing added more than enough sweetness. In fact, I think the next time I make this, I'll add just a tad more vinegar to cut down the sweetness more - I guess it all depends on how you make your molasses. I might cut down on sugar for that as well. 8-)

    Diva - Thank you and I can't wait to see what you'll do with your pomegranate molasses!

    Claudia - Thank you and welcome, fellow Minnesota blogger! 8-) I'm also at home most days and during the winter, eating seems to be the only viable past-time (too cold for anything outdoors). But I'm getting better at being 'mindful'. I hope you will enjoy the salad - the components are interchangeable but the pomegranate vinaigrette is really quite tasty (and the recipe for molasses is super-easy!)

    Thanks so much for visiting! I stopped in at your site and love your Italian dishes, especially the chicken rosemary penne and the brodo rapido (I can't collect enough chicken bones to make my own stock so this at least makes it semi-homemade!)

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Lisa - My elliptical should be called the 'equilibrium' machine: it's what I use to balance things out when I fall into eating traps! The salad was really tasty but the dressing was really the star - I've been using it for different iterations. And I'm searching around for different ways to use the molasses. If you have any ideas, I hope you'll share on your blog!

  • zerrin said...

    I enjoyed these friday discussions. We discovered the philosophy of eating thanks to these posts.

    You know I love pomegranate molasses and it's a perfect salad dressing. Also I love the idea of walnuts in a fresh salad.

  • Susan @ SGCC said...

    This salad looks like quite a delicious trade-off! I love tossing different fruits and nuts into salads. I've still got some homemade pomegranate molasses in the fridge. This just might be on the menu tonight!

  • Cris said...

    Ok... now I know what to ask for when you come visit... pomegranate molasses, there is no way I can find it here! Love this dressing!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Zerrin - Thank you so much! I'm so happy that you've enjoyed the book discussions. Between the grape molasses (I have plans for it but I haven't made the dish yet) and now pomegranate, I"m discovering some wonderful and versatile new flavors.

    SGCC - Until recently, I've been a lettuce-tomato salad eater. Now, I realize that fruits and nuts can really elevate it to a full meal. I hope you'll enjoy it if it does make it on tonight's menu!

    burpandslurp - Thanks! I had fun writing these and making the molasses. Now, I'm having fun figuring out what else to do with POM juice!

    Cris - Obrigada, mi amiga! When you come for a visit, I'll make this and some Filipino dishes for you since you've provided me with some wonderful Brazilian recipes. I hope it happens someday soon! 8-)

  • Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

    Drop by my kitchen when you get a chance. I've passed an award to you for these fabulous posts on Mindless Eating. This book has changed the way my husband and I look at our food choices. Thank you for bringing this great book to our attention.

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Sam - Thank you so much for sharing your award! I know I also speak for Joie de Vivre when I say that we're so pleased that you not only enjoyed our posts but also found such value in the book!

  • Jacoba said...

    I think the science of economics is very pertinent in a discussion about food!
    In this day and age, it is one of the few ways to get our attention, to hold it and to make us see what we need to see!

    Without economics there will be no food, after all ......

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Jacoba - Thank you for your comment! As much as I love the 'food' (that is flavors, ingredients, methods, etc.) in food studies, I am even more fascinated with those aspects that are often overlooked, such as the role of economics in production and choices.

    This is one of the reasons that I enjoy your blog so much: it also explores in-depth the political and social implications of what we eat! The other reason, of course, is that you offer amazing recipes, too! 8-)


Clean Template ©Copyright 2011 Tangled Noodle | TNB