Beat mindless eating with subtle changes in your habits - The Buffalo News

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Beat mindless eating with subtle changes in your habits

By Brian Wansink

We make hundreds of decisions every day about what to eat, when to eat, how much to eat, and more. Most of the time, we don’t realize how much time we devote to these decisions – without really focusing on them at all.

At noon, we automatically think of lunch. When we eat, we keep going until the plate is clean, and then stop. Like machines, we just keep going with little or no thought process.

External cues in our environment – the clock, the empty plate – and other prompts, guide our eating habits in ways we don’t realize or notice.

Because we rely on external cues from our everyday existence – the visibility, convenience, and attractiveness of a food – we’re often nudged to eat a little more, or a lot worse, than we otherwise would.

Luckily, the same influences leading us to mindlessly eat too much or eat the wrong things can be used to help us eat healthier. Start by making subtle changes in your environment. This can help you alter your eating habits and lose weight. After all, the best diet is the diet you don’t know you’re on!

Brian Wansink, viewed by some as the “Sherlock Holmes of food,” is the John Dyson Professor of Marketing and Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab in the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University in Ithaca. For more tips, visit his websites, and


Most of us think we’re in total control of our eating decisions, but that’s far from the truth. We’re tremendously influenced by our environment – even by how we set up our homes – especially the kitchen.

Fortunately, it is easy to change your eating environment. What works against you can also be changed. Since you pour more into wider glasses than taller ones, use taller glasses. Since you eat more off of big plates, use smaller plates.


The real solution to mindless eating isn’t necessarily food diaries or other unrealistic methods. Mindful eating – keeping track of every bite we take, counting calories, etc.– is just too difficult. The real solution is to transform bad mindless eating habits into good ones, so you eat less without thinking about it.

The key is a realistic approach. Not every method you try will work as well as others. Some techniques sound great, but end up being impractical. Others sound crazy, but would be surprisingly effective if you gave them a shot.

For example, if you’re guilty of eating too much at dinner, try these three simple changes:

• Use the half plate rule: Fill half the plate with vegetables, salad or fruit.

• Slow down: Be the last to start eating and the last to finish.

• Plate your food from the counter: Don’t serve off the table.


You’ve narrowed down your primary eating problem, but how do you know what change will work best? While many people are successful simply because they make physical changes, like using a smaller plate, others need to pick up some useful new habits. The following habits can help you lose at least 20 pounds in six months:

1. Only sit down for lunch and dinner if there’s both a fruit and a vegetable on the table.

2. Don’t eat white foods at dinner.

3. Use the half plate rule.

4. You can have a sweet or salty afternoon snack if you first eat a piece of fresh fruit.

5. Drink one glass of water before every meal or snack.

6. Use the “Restaurant Rule of Two”: Limit yourself to two items other than your entrée.

7. At home, eat only in the kitchen or the dining room.

8. Eat a piece of fruit on the way to work every day.

9. Limit desserts to weekends only.

10. Freeze half of what you make and serve the other half.


How much you eat is greatly influenced by how you store and serve food. Here are some easy changes you can make at home that the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University has proven help people eat less:

1. Adjust plates to fit your food: Use big plates for the foods you want to eat more of (like salads), and smaller plates for pasta, meatloaf, and casseroles.

2. Dedicate the top shelf of your refrigerator to precut fruits and vegetables.

3. Keep a filled fruit bowl on your kitchen counter.

4. Put big serving spoons in the healthy dishes and smaller spoons in less healthy ones.

5. Move snack food to the back of the cupboard (you’ll eat it 28 percent as often).

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