PSYC 123: The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food

Lecture 21

 - The Morphing of the Modern Diet (Guest Lecture by Brian Wansink)


Dr. Brian Wansink explores the topic of how people can move from mindless eating to healthier eating. He identifies five myths that contribute to overeating, and suggests how his research on eating cues provides potential ways to intervene against people’s mindless eating patterns. He then describes the future direction of his research.

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The Psychology, Biology and Politics of Food

PSYC 123 - Lecture 21 - The Morphing of the Modern Diet (Guest Lecture by Brian Wansink)

Chapter 1. Introduction to Dr. Brian Wansink [00:00:00]

Professor Kelly Brownell: Good morning everybody. Delighted you guys all found your way around to the new entrance for today which was not easy, given that it’s hard to find your way into this building anyway. I’m glad you’re here and I’m happy that — hope you had a nice weekend. I’m very happy to introduce our speaker today, Brian Wansink, Dr. Brian Wansink.

You’re just about to hear one of the most engaging speakers I think you ever will, but he couples the engaging style with an incredible amount of scientific rigor in the work he does. Brian received his PhD in marketing from Stanford University and then really hit the ground running in terms of a career and he’s taught at The Wharton School of Business at The University of Pennsylvania. He’s taught at Dartmouth, he’s taught at The University of Illinois and at Cornell now, and then there’s a place I missed didn’t I? There was one other place.

Dr. Brian Wansink: It’s a Dutch University.

Professor Kelly Brownell: He’s been a visiting professor in the Netherlands and in France, so he’s been invited around the world to do very impressive things. You’re about to see some very impressive work that explains exactly why he’s such a prominent figure in the field.

He is one of the pioneers in investigating how the environment and what might seem small manipulations in the environment, has a big impact on eating. His work has been featured in a number of television shows. He’s very often called as an expert to various conferences, and to the government to work on various public policy issues, and has written a book that you see up there called, Mindless Eating. I highly recommend the book. It’s very interesting because it brings together the work that he’ll talk about today, but puts it in a very interesting context about what people can do about their eating and also has some suggestions about how the research that he has done in the laboratory might be able to be used in a public policy setting. He’s a person who’s had a tremendous amount of influence.

At Cornell University, he runs a large laboratory with a number of students working with him, and he’s published an impressive series of papers on issues related to environmental determinants of eating. Then about a year and a half or so ago he was appointed by The White House to a position at the U.S. Department of Agriculture as Executive Director of The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. It’s an important part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and you can see from the name, deals a lot with policies related to nutrition and has major impact on what’s happening in the country.

Here’s a rare person who has done the academic work in such an impressive way that has taken it into the public policy arena more recently. Let’s please welcome today Dr. Brain Wansink.

Chapter 2. The Super Bowl Principle: Eating Behavior in the Real World [00:02:53]

Dr. Brian Wansink: That was wonderful. I really appreciate that introduction. I really appreciate being here too. Let me give you a little idea what we’re going to talk about today: how we move from mindless eating to healthier eating.

Now, you can see what’s going on is that I’ve had a — I kind of have two hats. One, I’m a professor of Cornell, but I’m on a leave of absence for about two years, which ends January 20 when the new President comes in, and I’ll be going back there January 21.

How many people have seen this before? How many people say, I have lived in a mayonnaise jar all my life and I’ve never seen this? Yeah okay, mayonnaise dwellers! Well you see this how as time is going on. There’s new colors we had to map to kind of be able to accommodate an increased percentage of people’s BMI over 25. What I’ve done — you see this and you go okay there are more colors — and I actually like colors so I don’t see any problem with it! But I wanted to put this in perspective.

I want to give you an idea of what I think is going to happen if this trend continues. This is what I think we might see in the 2025 if projections continue. You’re from New York you’re safe; I’m from Huntington Beach over there — you’re safe too — but I think the rest of us have to worry. I put that up there because the stuff I’m seeing today does not reflect the U.S. Government. In fact, I had to take a vacation day to come here so I need to tell that what I’m talking about today is not U.S. Department of Agriculture talk, it’s Brian talk.

A number of years ago in 1994, I had this incredible road to Damascus conversion. What it was, was up until that point I thought I was doing research, I thought I was coming up with some okay insights. What I quickly became aware of is that nobody else was aware of these insights. If there was miraculously somebody who did know about it, it certainly didn’t get them to make the decision to change the way they eat, or how much they eat, and if even they made the decision at Time T, at Time T + 1, it didn’t really have any impact on action.

What it really made me think about is how do I want to rearrange my research, how do I want to rearrange the way that it gets communicated so that it actually can have an impact? The reason I talk about this is because at the end of the talk we’ll come back around to something that we’re working on, something we call the small plate movement, which is an example of one of the things we’re trying to move out there to make — put some points on the board with respect to this research.

Here’s what we’ll do. The structure is, I’ll start with an overview of some of the ways that we’ve sort addressed this idea of overeating at home. I’ll show five myths that pretty much mess up a way a lot of us eat. The five myths that are really intelligence traps — meaning the more intelligent a person is, the more likely they’re liable to fall victim to these myths. Now these are from a couple chapters, Chapters two and three basically, from the book Mindless Eating. Then what I want to finish with is some insights related to small plate movement, one of the things we’re trying to do to get this to the next level.

There are all sorts of labs you’re probably familiar with. Now most of you who I- not most of you, but the few I’ve been able to talk with, are in the social sciences and you’re used to the social science labs. But in almost the research we do, all of our colleagues end up being in nutrition labs or something like this where they have bubble beakers, and professors with crazy hair, and stuff like that.

But the kind of lands in social sciences that look at issues like obesity end up looking more like this. Our lab is really at — it looks exactly like the way your home might look… if your home had one-way mirrors in it, and if your home had hidden cameras, and if your home had scales underneath surfaces.

I’ll give you an idea, because one of the things that we do is probably about 60% of our research is sort of psychology related, where we go in and we change something. We’ll bring people in and we’ll change the topic that they’re talking about, whether it’s a stressful topic, or a fun topic, or a boring topic, we’ll see how much they eat at lunchtime. We’ll go in there and we’ll alter the music, or we’ll alter the TV show that they’re watching, see how that might mess up what happens.

What we’re always looking at is how does something like from the environment — whether it be what the person is doing across the table from you, whether it be the lighting, whether it be the color of the plate — how that influences unknowingly how much you eat.

Now it’s a little bit hard to picture this so let me give you an idea of a study so you can better picture this, because this will be sort of the benchmark you can use as we can through the talk [video].

When we discovered this a while back, I happened to — the beginning of what a stroke looks like apparently — when we discovered this, one of the things that I did, a short time after that I happened to be giving a talk down at The Institute of Medicine on another topic, but I was so excited about this finding that just parenthetically at the end of the talk I said, oh yeah, yeah, yeah and da, da, da, da, da. The Institute of Medicine is kind of interesting place and people there are really, really smart but for some unknown reason every person there has a British accent.

Now they can be from Omaha but it would be the British-Omaha accent, and this guy says to me he says, well surely — and this was myth number one, surely something as basic as the size of a bowl wouldn’t influence how much an informed intelligent person eats.

I guess that’s kind of reasonable. But let’s see — so what I did I was teaching a course at that time, and these are really, really smart graduate students, so they were intelligent and I took one class session — I probably shouldn’t have done this — I took one class session for ninety minutes I did nothing more than to tell them that if I gave them a gallon size bowl of Chex Mix they would take and eat more than if I presented them with two half gallon bowls.

Pretty complicated concept there isn’t it? You can just imagine how happy people were to hear about this for ninety minutes. I lectured, we showed videos, I had people come up and do demonstrations, I broke people into groups so they could discuss how they could prevent this from ever happening to them, we did interpretative dancing, and then what happened is they left, being very intelligent and also very informed.

What happened is about six weeks after that when they back from holiday break, they got this seemingly unrelated invitation from me that said, hey want to come to a Super Bowl Party? We held it at a place called Gillian’s, sort of a sports bar, anybody familiar with? I think they have nineteen of them around the country. About half these people said yes or about two-thirds of them said yes, they showed up at the sports bar and when they showed up they were led to one of two rooms to pick up their snacks before they went on to watch the game.

Guess what the snacks were? The people went into the room on the left and being presented with gallon sized bowls of Chex Mix. They took as much as they wanted on a plate. When they got to the end of the counter — to the end of the table, somebody gave them a questionnaire — that is a meaningless questionnaire — that had them write down who do you think is going to win the game or some — we didn’t even really care.

But what it necessitated is that they put their plate down, and when they put their plate down, the only place where they could put it was this corner of the table that happened to have a scale underneath the tablecloth. They set it down, and it shows exactly how much they took.

In the parallel room which was exactly like it in every way, the same thing was going on except it had twice as many half-gallon sized bowls of Chex Mix. Same total volume but the smaller bowls, which suggest a smaller consumption norm and obediently lead people to take less.

Now the crazy thing was people who were serving themselves from these big gallon size bowls took and ate about 53% more. After the Super Bowl was over and they were leaving Gillian’s, we’d intercept them and we’d say, you know on average the people coming — the people in your group took 50% more popcorn than people over here. Do you think the size of the bowl had anything to do with it? What do you think people would say? No! How could it? I’m way too smart to be fooled by a bowl. We’d say, well, why do you think that on average your group ate 50% more than the other group? People go: uh yeah, you know I didn’t have breakfast yesterday; yeah that’s what’s going on there.

That’s the problem with these is these cues are ubiquitous. I mean this is just one cue we’re talking about here, but they are all around us, and anything that leads us to unknowingly eat too much does so not only ubiquitously, but it does so because we believe we’re too smart to be fooled by something like this.

Now you kind of wonder where does this end? One of the things we ended up doing is saying how far could we stretch this? To give you an idea, if you end up asking people to think of the last time they overate — think of the last time you overate, I mean to the point where you’re like almost regretful. I mean it could have been last night. If I were to ask you on that occasion why did you eat so much, think of what the answer is. What would be the answer one of you would boldly share? The last time you overate — sir?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Brian Wansink: Yeah, in fact that is the biggest answer, they say because the food was really, really good and the second answer is —

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Brian Wansink: Yeah, because I was really, really hungry. Now about 11% of the people will say something like, well I was feeling down or I was feeling a little bit melancholy and I ate because of that reason. It ends up being almost 88% can be explained by one of those two things.

Well, so we decided to see what happens if you get somebody who isn’t hungry, and you give them food that isn’t any good? Will they still be fooled by something like this? So we did a study here, and this is just outside of Chicago, Illinois. Anybody from Illinois, Chicago area? This is Mount Prospect, a western suburb.

People came to a theatre there, and what we did was we gave them popcorn in either those buckets that are — kind of big buckets that are about $7.50 each, or we gave them those really, really huge Holy Roman Empire size buckets that were $7.10 and they look like this.

One of the things we did though is they were — people were given — half the people were given good popcorn but the other half of the people were given terrible five day old popcorn. I had a good friend at the time who was an entomologist and — you know what entomology means? Yeah, well she had a lab that had — that was humidity controlled so we kept it for five days in this sterile lab with about 65% humidity. Nasty. This is like Styrofoam. What happened though is when people showed we intercepted — we took people who had just finished eating within fifteen minutes before coming to the movie theatre. When they showed up, we gave them one of these buckets.

Now, you can probably guess what the punch line’s going to be here: even though they weren’t hungry, even though the food was terrible, they ended up eating — you can see the brown is the old popcorn, the yellow is the fresh popcorn — even though they hated the popcorn they still ended up eating about 30, 35% more popcorn simply because the cue of the size of the bucket.

But again, what do you suppose they say when they leave the movie theatre and you say, hey what did you think of the popcorn? They go, oh it was terrible, and you go, why on average did you eat a third more than somebody with a smaller bucket? You think the bucket had anything to do with it? What did he say? No, it couldn’t have. Was it because you were really, really hungry? No, I just ate before I got here.

That’s the problem with these cues. I want to show you something, you kind of say well where does this kind of begin? We’ll take a look at this hoggish little girl here. I learned a long time ago that if you’re ever going to put a photo up that’s embarrassing it better either be of you or your daughter.

We take a look at this, I’ll show you just a little bit of study, what we wanted to do was look at four year old kids and see how the size of a cereal bowl influenced how much they took and ate. Now here we go [video].

Now to show you just a little idea, this is just a little preliminary view of a little bit of a part of that data, but here’s what happens, if we rank ordered these little kids, and these are four year olds, if we rank ordered them by BMI, with BMI percentile, you can see the dotted line is how much they request and eat if you give them — if they’re given a larger bowl and I think these are 24 ounce bowls and 12 ounce bowls if I believe correctly.

You’ll see that it doesn’t matter how — what the BMI of a child is. Every single one of these kids except for one ended up requesting and eating more cereal if they were given a big bowl then if they had been given a smaller bowl that still wasn’t constraining it at all. The sense of having an impact that goes way beyond us going to the movie theatre and watching James Bond last night and finishing that — I didn’t finish it — let’s take a look at something else [video].

These cues are everywhere around us. The thing with glass is — I had — when I kind of had found this I was giving a talk at — I think it was one of the American Dietetic Association annual conferences — again I was talking about something else and I had just discovered, I was like I’m so excited! So again parenthetically, the last thirty seconds of the talk I mentioned this. The first person to grab the microphone says, if even the professionals are fooled by the size and shape of glasses, what hope is there for the rest of us? This was stated really dramatically too, what hope is there for the rest of us? Poor Yoric, I knew him well!

Then she says the government needs to do something. Now I don’t know what the something would be, but within about two days of finding this out in our lab, we got rid of almost all of the short wide glasses in our lab. Most of us within about two weeks got rid of all our short wide glasses at home. One guy even got rid of — you know how red wine glasses tend to be a little more bulbous at the bottom, tend to be a little wider at the bottom than white wine glasses? One guy and his wife even got rid of all their red wine glasses, the rest of us just thought that was not right, but that’s what he ended doing.

With this thing — I mean I think in a lot cases the keys to reversing mindless eating isn’t to be mindful, it’s not to say must not overeat from large bucket, it’s not to tell yourself must not over pour in a short wide glass. I don’t think knowledge influences us that much in the heat of the serving and eating moment.

The easiest thing to do is if something causes you to pour or overeat more then you otherwise would, just reverse that cue. If it’s short wide glasses get you to pour 30% more alcohol don’t have short wide glasses. Big serving bowls cause you to take 50% more? Well don’t have big serving bowls. Break it into two smaller size bowls and put those in your party.

Chapter 3. The French Paradox Redux: Internal vs. External Cues [00:24:12]

Here’s this next myth we’re going to talk about, and it gets at something that we did in a study called The French Paradox Redux. One of the things we did was we went to 150 Parisians and asked them, how do you know when you’re through eating dinner? The number one answer was, ‘I know I am through eating dinner when I’m no longer hungry.’ The second answer was ‘I know I’m through eating dinner when the food no longer tastes good.’ Those are both internal cues, right? You’re using your taste buds, your tummy to tell you to stop.

We did the same thing — I hate to pick on Chicago two studies in a row, but we did the same thing about two months later to 150 Chicagoans and matched sample of 150 Chicagoans and asked them, how do you know when you’re through eating dinner? What do you think the number one answer was from Chicagoans? ‘I know I’m through eating dinner when the plate’s empty.’ The second response was, ‘I know I’m through eating dinner when everyone else is through eating dinner.’ They’ve left the room and turned the lights off. The third was, ‘I know I’m through eating dinner when the TV show I’m watching is over.’

Those are all external cues. We’re all looking for something else to tell us it’s time to stop. The problem is, almost all external cues around us, not maliciously but they all tell us to keep eating. If we end up relying on those rather than what’s going on in here, we’re almost destined for failure.

Well let’s do a study, let’s see if we can figure out what would happen if a bowl never emptied? We drew up this thing, it’s a soup bowl here. We’ve got a bunch of these tables, but this is a picture of one of them. This woman’s eating out of a refillable soup bowl. What we did is we drilled a hole in the bottom of the soup bowl, drilled it through the table, drilled it through that big vat down on the other end and attached some food grade tubing underneath to the bottom of the bowl, underneath the table, and up into that big vat.

This poor woman, if she eats the level in the soup bowl would go down, but the second she stops, for even a few seconds, it’ll imperceptibly start to rise again. She can eat for the next seven days, but if she doesn’t eat the six quarts of soup that are in that vat, she will never see the bottom of that bowl.

Now how many people think that if you were eating fifteen minutes out of a refillable soup bowl, that you’d figure out something was going on? All of us would of course, of about 160 people who did this study, only two of them did. One person had dropped like a napkin and kind of went and picked it up underneath the table and there was all this board-like tubing. And this other guy, who I think he was trying to channel like a Viking ancestor or something, and believed he was at some medieval banquet, and he tried picking the soup bowl up. The thing is, you have to remember though that this pressure fed and he picks it up and it comes out of the table like a coral snake and then squirts all over him. I mean the guy across from him stood up and knocked his chair over, and the woman — there’s a woman next to him who did one of these Friday the 13th screams.

Well here’s — what we weren’t so interested in was how much people ate, because we figured they’d probably eat more and they did, they ate 73% more. What we were more — that’s what it looks like — what we were more interested in was if it influenced their perception of satiety. Every way we asked them even though they ate 73% more soup, if you said, so are you pretty full? They would go, no I mean how could I be full? I still have half a bowl of soup left.

This ends up being a problem because you end up eating with our eyes more than our stomach and we’ve shown this in a bunch of other bizarre studies where we either bus or don’t bus chicken wings and we look at how much people afterwards and things like that. The person says I know when to stop is a very rare person. If it’s in front of us we’re going to chomp it down.

How many people have heard of the IgNobel Prize? Anybody? What can you tell me about that? It’s for science that —

Student: [Inaudible]

Dr. Brian Wansink: Yeah, it’s kind of for weird science. It’s for science that make you laugh and then makes you think, and I’d say they give these things at Harvard every year, there’s ten of them doing the same places, and this won the IgNobel Prize last year for nutrition.

Here’s what it is, they have it in this theatre, but there’s a couple of advantages of this if a person ever wins it. First of all, they have all these real Nobel Prize winners that are hanging around, and this is like a three day party, it is unbelievable. I mean, I had two dinners with this guy and we went to two receptions.

The unexpected benefit is first of all you get to party with real Nobel Prize winners. Here’s the second advantage of this is, it’s what your less attentive colleagues think. Here’s an email I got the next day, Brian what did I hear on NPR about a Nobel Prize? Only caught part of it. That was the part without the Ig in front of it!

Chapter 4. Denser Ingredients for Food Eaten in and out of Home [00:30:50]

The third myth I want to talk about is a myth that most of the obesity problem has to do with food eaten away from home. Granted, about half the meals people eat are eaten away from home, particularly the more and more people work, because if you work, you at least have to eat five lunches away from home. It might have something — it does definitely have something to do with food eaten away from home, but it might also have something to do with the food we eat in our home.

What I was interested in figuring out is: how have the calories in the recipes that maybe your mom or dad made for you growing up, how would that have been different four years ago when you were at school — when you were at home than it would have been maybe let’s say 40 years ago when they might have been at home?

One way we tried to look at this is to say well let’s look at some standard recipes. Let’s see if we can take a recipe book that’s been around for like 75 years and see how recipes and calorie content has changed. We did this. We found The Joy of Cooking — how many people have seen this in their parent’s home? That’s the first one right there, 1937, and this was right after the war. I think was 1946, this was 1962, and this is one that just came out in 2006.

What we ended up doing is we took all the recipes in every one of these editions and they come out roughly every nine or ten years, and what we did is we analyzed the calories and the serving sizes for recipes over the years. That’s kind of interesting, but what’s more interesting is some of the recipes that used to be in that are no longer in it anymore.

For those of you who don’t know some of the finer points of food preparation let me share one that might have fallen off the map. Some recipes like this one didn’t survive the years, you remember that one time your mom did this, didn’t you? There we are, there’s the little squirrel, kind of like a little Ratatouille there, step on the tail, that’s a key point and then you just — you might not have seen that in the most recent edition. That’s because now you can buy squirrel as processed meat.

Here’s what we found when we looked at calories and stuff. We looked at salads, main dishes, desserts and the crazy thing is that all but one recipe increased from 1937 in subsequent issues up until 2006, every single recipe increased in calories per serving except for one. The average calories per serving, per serving size increased by 63%, that kind of means that when you’re — your mom or dad, or maybe when your grandmother was eating out of the beef stroganoff recipe in 1937, they were eating a whole lot less than you are, just looking at the serving size.

About two-thirds of this increase — of the 63% calorie increase — about two-thirds is due to more dense ingredients like more fat, more sugar, heavier sauces, raisins and nuts, and things like that, that weren’t added back then; and about a third of its due to just larger serving sizes, and the biggest jumps took place right after World War II in the early sixties that Baby Booming time, and then in 2006. Everybody doing okay so far?

Chapter 5. Our Tremendously Persuadable Taste Buds [00:34:39]

Okay, we’re going to look at another eating myth and this is the idea that we know what we like. Now the French have this expression that there’s no accounting for taste. I think we can account for a lot more taste than we think, because our taste buds are tremendously, tremendously suggestive. In fact, we’ve done a bunch of things with kids or just changing the names of things and ended up having tremendous effects on how much kids ate, like calling peas ‘power peas’ made kids take a whole lot more peas. The problem with peas is they take them and don’t eat them. They just — they power throw them.

We did a study one time too where we were working with a summer camp. The summer camp had this thing, it was kind of like a tomato juice. You know how much seven and eight year olds like tomato juice? Yeah you remember that, and what we did is we renamed it rainforest smoothie, and they — and for the next week they couldn’t keep it in stock.

Let’s take a look at this; I’ll talk about a couple studies. I was approached by this guy in the blue shirt right there a number of years ago and he was in charge of thirty-three cafeterias at a university, he says here’s the deal, we’re coming up with this really healthy cafeteria. Everything there is going to be made of low cal ingredients, it’s going to be tremendous.

He says the problem is nobody’s coming to it. Now it was called the Bevier Café, and he says, is there anything that we can do to get people to think the food’s better than it actually is? Heaven forbid you can actually change it to make it taste better; you don’t want to do that!

One of the things we did, a whole bunch of cool studies, but one of the studies that we did is we knew that by some other studies that there’s this tremendous expectation mindset that occurs when somebody says, hey this is really, really good, do you want try it? You try it, looking for something that’s really, really good about it. Or if somebody says, this is my grandmother’s favorite chocolate cake recipe. You taste it, expecting it to taste good, and your expectations lead to a taste confirmation.

One of the things we did was we simply over the course of six weeks we took a bunch of recipes and we gave them descriptive names, descriptive labels, or we just called them their normal name. For instance, for a two week time period we would have a seafood soufflé out, then for two weeks it would go off the menu, and then two weeks after that it would come back, and we would rename it something descriptive like, Succulent Italian Seafood Soufflé. That’s the exact same recipe, it’s basically a dried fish stick.

But what ended up happening was that not only were sales much higher here, but people’s evaluation of the seafood soufflé was a lot higher, they rated the restaurant as being more trendy and up to date, and they rated the cook as having had more culinary experience overseas. In reality, the guy had been fired from like Arby’s two weeks before, but it didn’t matter!

We did all sorts of ridiculous things. We called chocolate cake, Belgian Black Forest chocolate cake. Now it doesn’t even matter that the Black Forest isn’t in Belgium, people would go oh yeah that’s how I remember, that’s the stuff! It has this dramatic influence.

You can stretch this pretty far. We have something called the research restaurant, it’s called The Spice Box. What we did is we decided to do the same thing with wine, because we noticed in another study that if you put a really fancy label on a bottle of really terrible two dollar wine, people think it’s a lot better than it is, but we wanted to see if it had a referred impact on the rest of the meal a person eats.

What we ended up doing was we ordered a bunch of these cases of this wine, it’s called Charles Shaw Wine. In California you can buy it for two dollars — what do they call it in California? Two Buck Chuck, yeah that’s right. We took this Charles Shaw wine, we soaked all the labels off, replaced them with labels that either said it was from Noah’s Winery — fictional winery — Noah’s Winery, new from California or the other half of the bottles said it’s from Noah’s Winery, new from North Dakota.

Well, we didn’t care what they thought about the wine because our pretest had shown that they would not like the wine as much, but what was interesting is what happened with the rest of the meal. When they came in for this prefixed meal which they paid about $24 or around there, not only did they spend longer — if you were drinking the California wine not only did you spend longer eating, and you ate more of the food, but when people left, they were more likely to make reservations to come back soon. Loved the wine, loved the food, want to come back soon.

Those people who thought their — instead North Dakota wine didn’t really have such a magical experience. What happened with them is they finished up, left a lot of food on their plate, and when we said do you want to make reservations to come back here? They would go you know, umm, I’m just really busy for the rest of my life. But they both drank the exact same amount of wine. How much was that? All of it, it’s free.

It’s just kind of interesting is — when I was doing this, one of the researchers in my lab kept walking and saying, and he said this like fifteen times, any time we’d say it, he’d laugh and go, hey some wise guy put a cork in my wine bottle! Anybody know where that comes from, the famous person who said that? Initials H.S — Homer Simpson.

If we look at it, if we look at how most people buy wine, if they go to a dinner party or something, what you usually do, you find a price point you’re interested in and then what do most people do, well they just look for the prettiest bottle. According to this it probably works okay. Now how many people say that they probably wouldn’t be fooled by something as silly as a label or a description of a food? We’re all too smart for that. Let’s take a look.


That would never happen to us, no!

Chapter 6. The Diet Myth [00:43:59]

Well, the last myth I want to talk about is the myth that I’m going on a diet and I’m going to lose weight. We’ve done a few studies related to this, and when I told you that I went through this conversion experience in 1994 and I wanted to try to figure out why didn’t things we try to do — they don’t really seem to have the effect we wanted.

One of the things we ended up doing at that time was we ended up hiring two dieticians and a clinical psychologist. We started our own little sort of — not really a weight clinic but we were just — we met with people who wanted to lose weight, we talked to them to give them some ideas, they tried some things, and then based on how we presented things to them and whether it worked or not, we were able to fashion how we could make messages more effective, then also what research we could do to try to get at some of the issues that they had been stumbling with.

We did a couple of studies related to this, but one of them ends up being there’s a couple things that seem to go on when people start going on diets. One is, it’s usually coupled with — it’s sometimes coupled with an increase in physical activity.

We’ve got a really cool paper that we’ve been working on that looks at this idea of compensation. It’s an idea that you start exercising, you go on a diet or you start an exercise program, and what a lot of people find is they start gaining weight not losing weight, that’s kind of weird. Initially people kind of go it’s because I’m building muscle. You’re walking a quarter of a mile a day I don’t think you’re bulking up too much just yet.

We did a really neat study a whole back where we took people, and this is up at Cornell, and we recruited and either said what we want you to do — we had three groups, we had a control group where we just gave them lunch, and then we had a group where we said what we want you to do is we want you to go on a two mile exercise walk, then you get your lunch. So they walked this nice walk around this lake, it was about two miles.

We took this other group we said, what we want you to do is we want you to go — we want you to test out these — this iPod to see how clear the music is on this walk. So they went on the exact same two mile walk, but they — it wasn’t coded in their mind as exercise, it was coded instead just as they’re doing something kind of fun, then they came back and ate too.

The thing is it seems that when people actually believe they’re exercising, they believe that they have put themselves out, and they need something in return. What we found is that compared to the control condition, people who believe they’re exercising ended up eating a lot more calories but even they ended up eating 125 calories more than what they had actually burned off.

The other thing that happens is when we go on diets we say, I’m going to start eating diet food, that’s what I’m going to do! We did this study with Subway and McDonald’s and we called it the McSubway Study. What we did was we intercepted a bunch of people, and there’s like six studies in here but this is just the coolest one — is the first one and we ended up intercepting a bunch of people when they left McDonald’s and Subway, and we asked them how many calories do you think you ate?

Now the typical person in this sample eating at McDonald’s ate about 700. Now when asked to estimate how many they ate, they estimated they ate about 610 calories, but this is really highly variable. A lot of people don’t know what calories are, so it’s really highly variable. We did the same thing at Subway, intercepted people as they left Subway, and the typical person leaving Subway believed that they ate about 325 calories, where in fact, they ended up eating about 560 I think.

What happens? Well there’s a big health halo that surrounds some of these sandwich places. Where they say, well their advertisement is healthy, so therefore that must be low fat mayonnaise, must be low fat meatballs in the meatball sub, that must be low fat salami; those cookies, I think they’re calorie free even, I think. It’s our tremendous wishful thinking that makes us — you still end up eating a lot better, but there’s this big difference that’s really driven by perceptions of people believing they’re eating a lot healthier then they wanted to.

Chapter 7. Smaller Plates, The Ripple Effect and Other Small Solutions [00:48:35]

Well, that gives you a little bit of an idea of some of these myths. Now in review, let’s just take a look at three of these myths, the stale popcorn study, the bottomless bowl study, and the joy of cooking too much. These cues around us cause us to over serve, we don’t know when we’re full, and this even happens at home when we’re doing this ourselves.

Now these cues around home can lead us to eat more then we might want, and it leads us to say, what would be the solution to this? Well if these were the only things influencing us we could easily just — if our immediate environment causes us to overeat what we can do is we could change our immediate environment to eat less.

If big plates cause us to eat, we could use smaller plates. In fact, we find interestingly if — most of you probably in your parents’ home have plates that are 12 1/4 to 12 1/2 inches in diameter. What you find is that the smaller the plate, the less you eat down to about 10 1/4 inches. Once you go below 10 1/4 inches people start getting seconds and thirds, and it kind of cancels out, but down to some point, it works for basically everybody we’ve tested this on.

Big bowls, if that’s a problem use smaller bowls. If wide glasses are a problem, use smaller glasses. If eye level foods end up messing you up, and they do tremendously in your cupboards, well just adjust the eye level foods. Put the healthier things right in this range and put your Cap’n Crunch down at the bottom. If stockpiling and salience is messing you up and it does, rearrange your cabinet.

Now if we’re such mindless eaters of the mindless solutions, so what we did is we’ve got a website called, and a lot of people have come to this and a lot of people sort of ask for advice. What we’ve set up is some ways that people can get free advice based on some personality characteristics.

If you answer a few questions, we know statistically what’s been shown to be most likely be relevant and to be compliable by you, so we suggest this. After having done this for a while we kind of said, hey wait a minute, why don’t we actually use this for research? So what we ended up doing is we took — recruited 2,000 volunteers who would come to this website, not a random sample, 41 years old, they’re almost all female, 1.4 years of college, two kids.

What we did is we randomly assigned them to one of twenty changes, one of twenty tricks that we or others had found worked in the lab. I’ll show you what a couple are in a second. They would be things like replace white glass with thin, use the half plate rule, etc., etc., etc. One of them we even threw in was, use chopsticks which is kind of a ridiculous one but we put that in there too.

Then what we did is we randomly allocated 100 people to each one of these changes with the idea being we would track them for three months, and for three months we’d see which of these changes resulted in the most average weight loss per month. We also asked some other things too, but that’s what we were interested in.

The basic thing we did was we gave people a calendar they could print off on their computer, that all they had to was if they did their change, let’s say we assigned them to the use tall skinny glasses instead of short wide glasses; if at dinner time, just at dinner time they used a tall skinny glass, on Monday they could put a check. If they did it on Tuesday they could put a check for Tuesday. If they did it on Wednesday they could do a check on Wednesday. If they ate out on Thursday, they didn’t put a check and so on. Then we did a pre-post self-reported weight, well being, some biomarkers, absenteeism, and the specific results aren’t as interesting as what we found after that.

Here’s kind of what we found, is that these aren’t people who were necessarily dieting, and this is the average person so a whole bunch of people aren’t complying. They sign up for it and then they kind of out for to the all you can buffet. So this is what goes on.

If we look at the one that had the biggest impact, it was kind of wasteful, leave some food remaining on your plate. The typical person assigned to that condition ended up losing about 2.1 pounds per month. Not a lot but that would be about 24 pounds over a year if they kept it up just by making a passive change. Use a salad plate or a 10” plate for your dinner plate, they lost about two pounds, and it goes down. What’s crazy is that at least for five of these things people actually — if they did them they actually gained weight.

Now that’s not what lab studies show, but they actually gained weight in the same way that the person eating at Subway was eating a whole lot more then they believed they were. Kind of what was happening here was a very commonly recommended thing is to eat a hot meal, like eat oatmeal as a hot breakfast alternative.

What we found is that if people did that they actually ended up gaining a little bit more weight. What’s sort of confounding here is there’s a .73 correlation between compliance reported weight loss, meaning it doesn’t really matter how seriously you did these things, if you just did it you’re bound to lose weight. It didn’t even matter if you even did it very seriously. If you did it, it seemed to work. The more mindless or convenient the change is, the higher the compliance was, and monthly weight loss was non-linear over the three months.

Here’s what’s crazy: the first month the people would lose a little bit of weight, the next month they’ve used — lose a little bit of the weight, but for some sub-segment of the population the third month they lost a boatload. Now this was very puzzling and we couldn’t figure out from the data why this happened, but I think the answer came to me when I was giving a talk about a year ago. Does anybody want to guess why there would be for some group of people a very non-linear — why they would lose a whole lot more their third month then subsequent months than they did their first two?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Brian Wansink: Yeah, that is exactly right. It seems that there’s this ripple effect that happens. They do this, it works for a couple months, they say well I’m not losing 60 pounds a day but I — things don’t feel as tight as they did a couple months ago, let me try something else. There’s almost an empowerment that happens. Here’s what’s bizarre.

I had this — I’m going to show a couple pictures of a couple people here, they said it was okay to do this, but I was giving a talk in Denver just about a year ago. This woman comes up to me, they had a reception afterwards and this woman comes up to me and she says you know what — she’s a dietician, she goes, my husband and I we made a change about 11 months ago and we made one small change, as a result I lost about 35 pounds, my husband lost about 50 pounds. I was like wow, what was the change made, because that’s not unheard of but, that’s fairly dramatic, that’s about twice what you kind of expect.

She says, well we both came up with this idea of using what we call — we never sat down for lunch or dinner unless there was both a fruit and a vegetable on the table. You go, come on, how is that going to do anything? Well what do you think having a fruit and vegetable on a table caused to happen?

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Brian Wansink: They ate the fruit and vegetable even though that wasn’t even a requirement.

Student: [inaudible]

Dr. Brian Wansink: Yeah, and they made sure that — and slowly it sort of evolves, so the other stuff they’re putting on the table wasn’t quite as terrible as it might have been 11.5 months ago. Then she also said too, and she goes, then my husband after about six months since he said, this is going pretty good. So he actually stopped drinking beer and started drink red wine instead and you can see he’s keeping up with that. This ended up happening because of this strange ripple effect.

Then I had this experience — this is just like two months ago. There’s these six big human nutrition research centers in the country that are funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and only one of them studies obesity, and it happens to be in North Dakota. Why North Dakota you might ask? Right, the center in charge of that appropriations committee is from North Dakota, but anyways it’s in Grand Forks, and the Secretary of Agriculture is from North Dakota, so I flew out there and I gave five talks in two days, and this is what happened in one of the talks.

At the end of one of these talks this guy — the main purpose of this talk was to do this big media recruitment for the state to get involved in these obesity studies. I finished this talk, it was kind of late at night too, so this may have been 9:30 maybe when I had finished, and this guy — the place is almost empty and this guy walks from the back of the room, he’s got his coat buttoned like this and he comes up and he goes, I’ve been waiting all night to show you something.

I was saying to myself, oh Lord let it be a gun! He opens his coat and he pulls his sweater, and he goes, this sweater was skin tight on me just like six or seven months ago, and he said he lost thirty-four pounds in seven months. I said — he says I only made one change and I said what change did you make? He goes, I ate cottage cheese when I got home from work. I was like what, and then you yakked?

And he says, No, but because I ate cottage cheese I wasn’t hungry for dinner, so we backed our dinner up from 6:00 when he would have otherwise had to 7:30, and because we back dinner up to 7:30 I wasn’t hungry for a snack at 9:00 like I otherwise would have been, and so I just effectively stopped snacking because I started eating a little bit of cottage cheese when I got home; this big weird ripple effect.

Chapter 8. The Small Plate Movement [00:59:26]

Now we could say, what would be the next steps? If we want to study this ripple effect, if we want to see what happens, well we could try to conduct a big large scale NIH study, we could try to randomize big groups of populations to see what that would happen, but what if we didn’t want to wait? What if we really wanted to try something that we thought wouldn’t hurt at all and see what would happen.

Here’s something that we’re starting, and I say we, it’s The Food and Brand Lab but it’s a whole bunch of other partners we’re getting together with. We’re starting something called The Small Plate Movement and the idea here is that the families, if we get them — it’s really hard for people to say don’t over serve myself. It’s a whole lot easier if you have a smaller cue, you naturally tend to do less. So we’re trying to encourage families to user smaller 10” plates.

We’ve got some media partners, The Food Network and The Today Show. We’ve got a weight loss group that’s interested in partnering, and what we’re going to do is aim this on a rolling basis, but to launch it initially the first of January, and the whole idea is try this just for a month, just try it for a month, and tell us what happens.

Now, what we are hoping happens ends up being a lot of these ripple-related activities, because using a small plate, I mean it looks to me based on this really rough pilot study, that people can lose maybe two pounds a month, but I mean it’s not going to be shedding off like in liposuction, no. It’s really slow, but it might be these ripple things that happen, and it can be a very passive way for people to get perhaps their kids to eat a little bit less without the kids revolting.

Then there are two other big things we’ve got to look at also and one ended up being restaurants. We’ve done a study that shows that if you take an all you can eat restaurant, we did this really cool study about Chinese buffets that just came out, but we — in another study we show that if you look at restaurants, the all-you-can restaurants, the typical person will over serve themselves on a large plate, but they’ll also end up throwing a lot — they’ll throw a reasonably high percentage of the food away. I forget the percentage, but it might be 25% of the food they just end up tossing away. They go back for seconds or thirds, or ninths, or whatever.

With smaller plates, what happens is people not only take less but they’ll also throw less away, so the restaurant wins in a double way. Even if we look at fixed plate restaurants like a nice restaurant, if you were to take 10 ounces of steak and have it on a 12” plate, it looks like an appropriate amount. 12” when we put it on a 10 1/2” plate, it looks like people are getting an incredible value. It’s like, wow look at the size of that! Well no, it’s the exact same size it would be if it was on that plate, it just looks huge because of the plate.

There’s these win/win ways to do it and so I’ve got some meetings with the NRA and some — National Restaurant Association — and some large chains. One of the reasons that we’re really excited about this is about four years — three years ago when we came out with the idea about the glass shapes, I called up a bunch of these places like Darden Industries which is Olive Garden and Red Lobster, and TGI Friday’s, to meet with them and say, hey look if you just replace these short wide tumblers that you have in your bars with tall skinny glasses, your bartender’s likely to pour 28% to 32% less liquor. You’re going to save on that, and you’re probably doing a favor for a lot people who are driving home thinking they had to two drinks, but instead they had about 2.6 drinks.

They’re like hmm, yes that would be win/win wouldn’t it? Within about a year a number of them started — at least one of those chains replaced all their glasses and another one of them I’ve heard is doing it on a more gradual basis. There’s a case to be made that if you can show a win/win sort of solution maybe you can get industry to follow like that.

We’re also doing the same thing with plate manufacturers and that we figure — I mean often do you buy new plates? Four times in your life, but all of a sudden — maybe more — but all of a sudden, if there’s another reason for you to buy plates and they come out with maybe a small plate size, or lean plate size, all of a sudden that’s another reason for you to buy plates and I think we can get some of the plate manufacturers Corelle and some of these others to start producing smaller plates.

Now I’m giving a talk at the — you’re not going to believe this, there’s actually a national conference for dinnerware. You think partnering with the Nobel Prize winners was cool, so that’s actually in Chicago in March so I’ll be going there for four days to do nothing more than to say smaller, smaller, smaller.

Chapter 9. Historical Contributions to Life Expectancy [01:04:36]

That gives you a little bit of an idea of what’s going on. One thing that I want to end with is that if you look over the course of maybe of modern history, you see what was it that’s contributed most to our quality of life? Let’s even just say to our lifespan? If we look in the nineteenth century, the things that sort of contributed most to people living longer was when physicians learned that maybe they should wash their hands before they do surgery, that helped. When other people found — discovered that maybe having rats as house pets was not really a sound idea. If you look at that I think the contributors there ended up being hygiene related, so I would call it the century of hygiene, if I had to come up with a name for it.

In 1900 what would you guess the average lifespan was of the typical person? 40s — Somebody want to give me a specific number in the 40s? It was 46 or 47, depending on whether you were a man or a woman. What was it in 2000, 100 years later? 76 and 77, 30 years more. What happened?

Well, I think a bunch of things happened. Fewer wars might have helped a little bit, but I also think there are a bunch of great discoveries. There’s cancer drugs, there’s penicillin, polio vaccines; and if we had to put our finger on what might have contributed most to life expectancy, then I think we could it the century of medicine.

Whereas now, I mean there’s probably some new advances that are going to happen in medicine, but are they going to take us from 76 to 106? No, no. I think it’s going to be behavior-related things, it’s knowing maybe how to eat a little bit better, or it might be knowing that’s probably not a good idea to smoke and skydive simultaneously.

I think this ends up being the century of behavior change. The more we can kind of look at people and look at a behavior and change that in a good way, I think that’s the biggest impact we’re going to have. That is where we’re at for today. Thank you very much for the invitation.

[end of transcript]

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