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Are you a mindless eater?

Can a noisy restaurant make you drink more – or less? What's the psychology behind menu wordings?

by: Ilze Dreyer | 31 Aug 2007

Dr. Wansink is the director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, has spent his career looking into the subtle influences on how Americans eat. They call him the "Sherlock Holmes" of eating and in his new book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think he unravels the mysteries of over eating.

"Most of us don't overeat because we're hungry. We overeat because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colours and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers," says Wansink.

His studies have shown that the average person makes about 250 decisions about food every day and that most people don't have a clue as to what influences their choices.

Sometimes the cues are as obvious as serving size, the more you're served, the more you eat, but we also take cues about eating from dining companions.

Wansink demonstrates that our perceptions of food are largely influenced by external cues, from the size of a serving bowl (the bigger it is, the more we eat), to a menu item's description (the fancier it is, the better the dish will taste), to the company we keep (we consume more with a companion than alone).

Eat mindfully
In a recent interview with the Vancouver Sun, he suggests some tricks to regulate what you put into your mouth.

He recommends that in a restaurant you sit next to the person you think will be the slowest eater. Be the last one to start eating, don't eat directly from the package and wrap tempting food in foil so you don't see it. Eat mindfully – slow down, express gratitude for the food you are eating, paying attention to feelings of fullness and focusing on why we eat instead of what we eat.

For one of his studies, Wansink devised a "bottomless" soup bowl (rigged up with insulated tubing that drew soup from a hidden pot). The device kept soup bowls about half full no matter how much his study subjects ate. He wanted to know whether visual cues or feeling full would make people stop eating. He found that those who were served soup in normal bowls ate about nine ounces, while those who got the "bottomless" bowls ate 15 ounces (and more!) and some didn't stop until the 20-minute experiment ended.

Beware of 'healthy' restaurants.
"When we see a fast-food restaurant like Subway advertising its low-calorie sandwiches, we think, 'It's OK: I can eat a sandwich there and then have a high-calorie dessert,' when, in fact, some Subway sandwiches contain more calories than a Big Mac, " says Wasink.

Wasink calls this calorie underestimation. Consumers chose beverages, side dishes, and desserts containing up to 131% more calories when the main course was positioned as "healthy" compared to when it was not, even though, in the study, the "healthy" main course already contained 50% more calories than the "unhealthy" one.

Noisy restaurants turns more tables
Wansink conducted a study taking normal ambient noise and magnified it through speakers and tracked the amount customers spent on food and alcohol and the amount of time they spent at the table.

"The average for dinner is about an hour and fifteen minutes without the noise, but a little bit over an hour with. So it can help a restaurant turn tables to have a noisy restaurant," he says.

They also that the average bill for alcohol was about 40 percent higher if it was a quiet place instead of a noisy place. People wanted to stick around longer and socialise.

To purchase Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think go to

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