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Trying to lose weight? Your environment could be making you fat

August 02, 2011|By Jeannine Stein, Los Angeles Times / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Brian Wansink of the Cornell University Food & Brand Lab shows how different size plates can influence how much we eat
Brian Wansink of the Cornell University Food & Brand Lab shows how different… (Jeannine Stein / Los Angeles…)

Is your house making you fat? No, we're not talking about evil spirits that may be forcing you to consume copious amounts of Chips Ahoy! cookies. There could be aspects of the design and set-up of your kitchen that subconsciously trip your triggers to eat.

Brian Wansink pointed some of these landmines out while on a recent trip to Southern California. Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food & Brand Lab in Ithaca, N.Y., and author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," showed how, with just a few tweaks, a kitchen can become a dieting ally instead of an enemy.

Take dinner plates, for example. Over the years they've gotten larger (just like we have) Wansink said, from about 10 inches wide on average to almost 12 inches. "What's the right amount to serve yourself?" he says, holding two different size plates in his hands. "No one really knows, so what we end up using are the cues around us to determine whether we have the right amount."

You guessed it--we usually fill larger plates with more food. "In one of our studies we gave people smaller plates and asked them to serve themselves pasta," he said. "The typical person will put about 4 ounces on a 10-inch plate, but if you put that same amount on a larger plate it looks like an appetizer." On average, he added, people put 22% more food onto a 12-inch plate.

But when asked to assess how full they were after eating the pasta, those who ate more didn't rate themselves as any more full than those who ate less. "So much of this is about visual cues," he said.

The lesson on plate size also applies to serving bowls and spoons. However, people tend to pour more into short, fat drinking glasses than they do tall ones. "That's not a big deal for water, or if kids are drinking milk," he said, "but it is for juice or soda."

The typical person makes about 250 food-related decisions a day, most without even thinking about them, Wansink added. A food decision could be something as benign as should-I-eat-the-banana-or-shouldn't-I, or more complex--what to make for dinner.

"The fact that all these decisions are unknown to us is what nudges us in the direction of being mindlessly influenced by the things around us," he said. The goal is not to become more mindful and put extra time and thought into every decision, but to change our environment so those split-second choices benefit our health.

Take snacks, for example. Most of us keep the ready-to-eat good stuff (i.e. chips, cookies and ice cream) where we can see them and get to them easily. Not a great idea, Wansink said, especially if you're super hungry. "The hungrier you are, the more likely you are to go for the things that need the least preparation." As in eating chips from the bag or ice cream from the carton. Not that we'd know anything about that.

This even applies to fresh fruit--you're more likely to eat it if it's clean and cut up versus whole.

"When you open a cupboard, in general you're three times more likely to take the first thing you see rather than the fifth thing you see," Wansink said. "You're not going to say, ‘Let me change my natural gaze,' because that will never happen." Instead, he suggests placing the more healthful items front and center and tuck the less wholesome things in back. Or go even further and put them in another room or second freezer.

That tip even applies to eating out: Ask a server not to put chips or bread on the table and you won't have to worry about having the willpower to resist them.

Wansink takes a cold Diet Coke out of the refrigerator and pops the top. "I like Diet Coke," he said, but he doesn't want to be tempted to drink several throughout the day. So only two stay chilled at a time, reducing the likelihood of grabbing more.

Having a dinner party at home? You may want to show off your cooking skills and hospitality by piling food on the table, but that just means we'll eat more, noted Wansink. That goes for leftovers, too. "The temptation is to bring everything out," he said, "but it just ends up being a cue to eat more."

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