A Little Word on the Mindless Margin

Food psychologist Brian Wansink gives us a shocking look at food psychology - and how we can use that to lead healthier, lighter lifestyles.

Food psychologist Brian Wansink gives us a shocking look at food psychology – and how we can use that to lead healthier, lighter lifestyles.

If you’ve ever put away a bag of chips while watching a movie – not because you were hungry, but because you snacked until the movie was over – you are familiar with the mindless margin. If you’ve ever had an after-work-snack just because it’s what you were in the habit of doing, or served yourself seconds at the dinner table because no one else had finished eating – than you know exactly where this margin is.

This zone is where we can overeat or under-eat, just slightly, without even realizing. It’s a margin of 100 – 300 calories, where we eat mindlessly and carelessly, without ever noticing the difference.

It’s the focus of Brian Wansink’s phenomenal book, Mindless Eating, which I just finished reading this week.

With so much of my life centered around food – eating it, writing about it, reading books that keep food at their core – I’ve always considered myself a very mindful eater. I watch what I eat, consider calories and nutrients, but enjoy a good quality meal at a restaurant. I think food should be savored and enjoyed, just as much as the every day, not so special meals should be regulated and thoughtful.

And yet I am as mindless an eater as everyone else.

In Mindless Eating, everything from the impact of lighting and plate size, to more complicated, deep-rooted factors such as family history and work habits, are used to reveal why we eat what we do, how much of it we consume, and how we can make tiny, hardly noticeable changes to our lives and diet that will help us shave a few hundred calories here and there that can result in a pound of weight loss a month.

In the course of the year, that’s more than ten pounds of weight, lost without a single hardcore diet of deprivation or a workout overhaul.

Because Little Word Bites was founded with a love of small snacking, I’ve decided to feature some of the most interesting moments from Mindless Eating that address grazers like me, small plates, and how to make minute adjustments in our daily routines to cut out the crap – literally – and pay closer attention to what we put in our mouths.

1. Eating Scripts: Human beings have the tendency to address food situations according to patterns and habits, rather than hunger. One particularly strong example Wansink provided was dining pace. We tend to spend more time eating when we dine with friends or family, thus typically consuming more food than we would alone. We also tend to match our pace to those around us.

A Little Change: If you’re trying to cut back on how much you eat, match your pace to the slowest eater at the table. Be the last to start eating, so that you will be the last to finish, thus avoiding the “second helping” offer, or eating additional servings simply to remain occupied while others finish.

Vegetables are key. Use Wansink's half-plate rule to make sure your plate is always at least half vegetables. Resolve to only get seconds if you are going to go back for vegetables, and at buffets such as this one, fill up on the healthy stuff for the volume effect - make yourself feel full - before going back for snacks and sweets.

Vegetables are key. Use Wansink’s half-plate rule to make sure your plate is always at least half vegetables. Resolve to only get seconds if you are going to go back for vegetables, and at buffets such as this one, fill up on the healthy stuff for the volume effect – make yourself feel full – before going back for snacks and sweets.

2. Avoid See-Food Traps: It’s an easy one to remember – “out of sight, out of mind. In sight, in mind.” In a slightly unfair study Wansink conducted, secretaries given clear candy dishes were seen dipping their hands in the dish 71 percent more often than the secretaries given opaque candy dishes. The result? Secretaries with clear candy dishes ate 77 more calories a day, which could add up to five pounds a year.

A Little Change: Because of this, and similar studies, Wansink recommends storing tempting foods and snacks in the back of the fridge or cupboard, and wrapping them in aluminum foil rather than see-through tupperware containers or plastic wrap. Another little word of advice? Forgo the candy dish and serving bowls all together in your house or on your desk.

When grocery shopping, Wansink suggests sticking to the perimeter, because “that’s where the fresh foods hang out.” And it’s true. The next time you’re at your local Trader Joe’s, get all your groceries from the perimeter, and check your cart. I suspect the only thing you’ll be missing are bags of Trader Joes Kettle Corn and frozen dumplings.

3. Dining-Out Dangers: This seems fairly obvious. Dining out, for many, is an experience. I always eat more, and more decadently, than I would if I were fixing myself a bowl of spaghetti squash at home for dinner. But being aware of diet traps restaurants often set – breadbaskets, slow music, and oversized portions – can help you beat them before they beat you.

During a fantastic dinner with my roommate, Ethan at Allswell in Brooklyn, we picked two: appetizer and cocktail. To further minimize our mindless margin, we split the appetizer - a hearty flatbread with arugula, ricotta, and mushrooms.

During a fantastic dinner with my roommate, Ethan at Allswell in Brooklyn, we picked two: appetizer and cocktail. To further minimize our mindless margin, we split the appetizer – a hearty flatbread with arugula, ricotta, and mushrooms.

A Little Change: In a study performed a few years ago, a popular fast food joint was transformed into a fine dining spot. The caveat? The menu was identical, only guests were enjoying their soft drinks and french fries at a white tablecloth table, set to a backdrop of smooth jazz and soft lighting. The result? The average eater lingered for 11 extra minutes. Overall, they reported enjoying their food more, and they often ordered more of it.  This isn’t all bad. When we eat slower, and enjoy our food more, we give ourselves time to feel full, and make each little bite worth it. As Wansink also says, “the foods we don’t bite came come back to bite us.” That’s the real trouble with deprivation diets. If you never eat the foods you love, who’s going to stop you from eating the WHOLE BOX of double-stuffed oreos if it’s the first time they’ve come within arm’s reach in three years? Not me.

The next time you’re dining out, bear in mind the subtleties of restaurant atmosphere, and ask yourself twice if you really want dessert or a second drink. Wansink also recommends establishing a pick-two rule when it comes to appetizers, drinks, and dessert. Pick only two; never order all three. Splitting large entries, or saving half for later, are easy ways to conquer the troubles of dining-out.

Whether you’re looking to lose weight, manage your weight, or simply add healthier foods and make better diet choices, learning to eat mindfully is an important skill. And as this food psychologist proves, we could all get a little better at it.

Mindless Eating concludes with Wansink’s suggestion that readers adopt only three positive changes at a time to adjust their mindless margin. Three is doable, and won’t make you feel overwhelmed. You can personalize the margin with food trade-offs or policies that help you achieve a healthier, happier, lighter you.

This month, I’ve made three food resolutions, and literally written them into my mindless margin. For watching what I eat and making healthier overall choices, nothing says success like putting in three checkmarks every day.

My personal mindless margin includes drinking at least one glass of water a day. I need to be conscious of drinking more water, and it's a great way to curb phantom hunger pains.

My personal mindless margin includes drinking at least one glass of water a day. I need to be conscious of drinking more water, and it’s a great way to curb phantom hunger pains.

Read Brian Wansink’s Mindless Eating to discover more amazing, sometimes unsettling, truths about food psychology, and to learn how to best personalize your mindless margin to work in your favor.

Until next time,

Melanie

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