By Mary Ann Roser
How far is your bowl from the cereal box? How big is your plate? Do you use a big serving spoon or a smaller one?
Those factors influence how much you eat, and, by extension, how much you weigh. That’s according to the man who has been called “the Sherlock Holmes of food,” Brian Wansink. He’s a leading food researcher, professor of consumer behavior and director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab.
More than a third of U.S. adults are obese, a medical problem that cost $147 billion in 2008, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Wansink wrote the 2006 best-selling book “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.” His new book, “Slim by Design,” comes out in September. He talked about eating and weight loss with the Austin American-Statesman:
Q: What is the secret to eating less?
A: It’s looking at which things trip you up the most so they work for you, not against you. There are five things that cause the most problems — meal stuffing, snack grazing, party bingeing, restaurant indulging and desktop or dashboard dining — eating at your desk or in your car. At any one time in your life, it’s one of those that’s the biggest culprit. That’s the one you should focus on.
Q: Say my problem is portion size. What are your best tips — that I might not have heard of — for eating less and losing weight?
A: Use smaller plates, but they can’t be smaller than 9 inches. Use a tablespoon as a serving spoon and you’ll serve 14 percent less food.
Also, we analyzed recipes in the “Joy of Cooking” over the past 70 years, from 1936 to 2006, and we found that the typical calories per serving have gone up 44 percent. After you make something for the family, realize it’s a lot more caloric than what your grandmother made. When we make food, we put half in the refrigerator and serve half. If we had it all on the table, two-thirds of it would be gone.
Q: Is there any diet that really works?
A: There are two types that work. One is the very extreme, three-day diets, like the cabbage diet or the grapefruit diet. They forcibly cause you to change your routine. Once you change your routine, it allows you to say, ‘What can I do differently than what I’ve been doing?’
Another diet that has worked very well is the low-carb or no-carb diet. It shocks the system, and it forces people to break habits and patterns that they can then reflect on later — and change.
Q: Are carbs the devil?
A: No, no. It’s often the forms carbs come in that cause problems. A lot of carbs we eat are empty carbs. As a rule of thumb, don’t eat things that are white.
Q: What is mindless eating?
A: Most people make 200 decisions about food every day. How much milk you pour, whether you have toast that day. We don’t recognize that our environment has a huge influence on what we eat. … Things like, how close the cereal box is to the bowl or how loud the TV or the music is while you’re eating. Louder music causes people to eat 18 percent more.
A: What happens is, we have this unknowing, natural tendency to eat to the beat.
So, mindless eating is not being aware of what’s influencing what we eat and how much we eat. Most of us believe we are master and commander of our eating decisions. People think smaller plates won’t influence them, but if you dish pasta out on a 12-inch plate versus a 10-inch plate, you will serve 22 percent more.
Q: So, the antidote is mindful eating?
A: No, it’s not. For us to sit down and take a bite of a pea and say, “Am I full yet?” is not very satisfying. It’s to change our environment of eating.
Q: Are there foods I can eat that will induce weight loss or speed up my metabolism?
A: Just eat less. If meal stuffing is the problem, use the small plate and a smaller serving spoon. If you are guy, you will eat 29 percent less of anything if you have the food sitting six or more feet from the table.
Q: Why? Are guys lazier?
A: No, they’re faster eaters.
Q: Is it better to eat five small meals instead of three regular ones?
A: I’ve heard people say that. It works for some people but for others, they’re not satisfied.
Q: Is it bad for your biggest meal to be your supper?
A: In reality, it should be your lunch. … It’s easier to change your environment than it is to change your mind and your willpower.
See more tips at www.mindlesseating.org.