Say good-bye to willpower

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By fine-tuning our environments, says overeating expert Brian Wansink, we can consume less food without having to think about it.

Feel like you’re constantly fighting temptations to eat too much of the wrong kinds of foods? It’s not you—it’s the environment around you, says Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author, most recently, of “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.”

Brian Wansink
Brian Wansink

Wansink, who has researched eating behavior, food psychology and food marketing for more than two decades, contends that the current environment is stacked firmly against healthy eating habits no matter how much willpower you have. But he argues the environmental cues that encourage overconsumption can be easily modified so that consumers will reach for the healthier foods, in the right portions.

I think obesity is going to be a lesser problem for most people [in the future] … there’s going to be more of a focus on … solutions that are going to make companies more money, but also make people eat less.”
—Brian Wansink

Wansink’s findings have influenced menu design in chain restaurants and contributed to the introduction of 100-calorie snack packages that help control portion size. And from 2007 to 2009 he served as executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the agency charged with developing dietary guidelines and promoting the USDA food guidance system (MyPlate, MyPyramid, Food Guide Pyramid). His website, slimbydesign.org, offers score cards to help consumers customize their eating environments.

FutureFood 2050 asked Wansink how to create a healthy food environment, why the food industry should get on board, and what he predicts for the future of our waistlines.

FutureFood 2050: You’ve done hundreds of studies on eating behavior and uncovered fascinating factors that influence us to overeat. What’s surprised you most?

Wansink: What consistently surprises me is that regardless of what it is that influences somebody—whether it be the size of a plate, the lighting, the order of things on a menu, what the person next to you is doing—almost all people will say, “OK, yeah. Maybe that influences other people, but it doesn’t influence me. I’m immune to those things.”

Most people are unwilling to acknowledge these influences in the first place. So why would they change? That’s what makes it so important to set up our environment so we can make the right choices without having to think about it—without having to have willpower.

FutureFood 2050: How, for example, can we stage our environments for success?

Wansink: There are five major environments to focus on: Our home, the two or three restaurants we go to most often, our main grocery store, where we work, and where our kids go to school. There are things you can do in all those areas to eat a little bit better and eat a little bit less. You want to tilt your eating life in the direction it’s going to work most for you rather than against you.

Let’s take home, for example. We went into 240 homes in Syracuse [N.Y.] and photographed and measured the entire kitchen, and weighed the people in the home. We found that if a home has a bag of potato chips visible in the kitchen, on average, that person’s going to weigh 9 pounds more than the neighbor who doesn’t have potato chips out. If there’s a box of breakfast cereal sitting out, that person is going to weigh 21 pounds more than the neighbor. But if they have even one piece of fruit visible anywhere in the kitchen, on average they’re going to weigh 8 pounds less. Simply decluttering your counters of food—unless it’s fruit—is going to be the first step in the right direction.

In schools, we [Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs] started the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement to get kids to eat better. We’re in over 20,000 schools nationwide. A lot of efforts have put healthy food in lunchrooms, but they haven’t been very successful in actually getting kids to eat it. So the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement was set up to guide kids to pick up the apple instead of the cookie—all the while thinking it was their own volition that was leading them to do so.

We recently launched an app that allows principals or even students to visually go through a lunchroom. If fruit is in a nice bowl in a well-lit part of the line, they get a point. If it’s in two or more places, they get a second point. If milk is in the front of the beverage cooler, they get a point. If at least a third of all the milk being sold is white milk, they get another point. The app adds up your score [to determine] whether the lunchroom is making you slim by design or heavy by design.

FutureFood 2050: Are you optimistic that making such changes will help turn around the obesity epidemic?

Wansink: I think obesity is going to be a lesser problem for most people [in the future]. The motto that people have been using to fight obesity up until now is “Willpower, willpower, willpower!” Trying to take food away from people, taxing it or legislating it, aren’t solutions that seem to be tenable. I think there’s going to be more of a focus on this notion of slim by design, where you’ve got sort of a win-win solution—solutions that are going to make companies more money, but also make people eat less.

When we first introduced 100-calorie packs, no company believed they could make money doing it. They said, “Sell less food? We’ll lose money!” But the opposite was true. We’ve found restaurants can charge for a half-sized portion up to 70 percent of what they charge for a full-sized portion, and it doesn’t decrease people’s likelihood of buying it. And if restaurants offer half-sized portions, people who don’t want to eat out because of the massive portion sizes might eat out a little more often. It broadens the market.

FutureFood 2050: What will the food industry look like in 2050?

Wansink: Food scientists over the years have spent most of their energy on issues of food safety and cost. And they’ve been unbelievably successful. In 1960, food comprised about 26 percent of the family budget. Now it’s about 7 percent. Food science has to be one of the most successful professions in the last 60 years! Where I see a huge gain is if they start turning their direction toward making food nutrient-advanced, lower-calorie and even more satisfying.

There are a number of things that can be done to make a person believe they’re more sated. We find that if something takes longer to chew, for instance, people believe they’re more sated. Technology [can be used to] affect things from a sensory standpoint.

I think we’ll also see point-of-purchase meal development in the future. I think you’ll be able to go to a section of the supermarket where you can choose the meat you want, choose your vegetable, your sides. Then the meals will be flash-frozen to go. There will be a manufactured tray that enables you to heat it up so that everything is cooked to the right temperature. Maybe there’s a type of membrane over the food, or the compartments might have heat-resistant elements in the bottom, so that the applesauce is still cool, the meat is really hot and the vegetables aren’t overcooked.

FutureFood 2050: How will food marketing and advertising change?

Wansink: I don’t think there will be major changes, but I think we’ll see marketing to children being turned over for the better. We did a study where we put Elmo stickers on wrapped cookies, and on apples and bags of carrots. If you put the stickers on a cookie, it doesn’t do anything [to affect the number of cookies purchased]. People will buy those anyway. But if you put Elmo stickers on carrots or apples, it almost triples how many kids select carrots and apples. What benefits most from branding is the healthy products.

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Kirsten Weir

Kirsten Weir is a freelance science writer based in Minneapolis. Her work has appeared in New Scientist, Discover, Scientific American Mind, U.S. News & World Report and many others.

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