The see-food diet

There’s an old joke that goes, “I’m on a see-food diet. When I see food, I eat it.”

Brian Wansink, John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing and of Applied Economics at Cornell, says there’s a lot of truth to that old joke—and he’s done a lot of studies to prove it. (He’s also the author of a book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.)

For example, during this year’s Super Bowl he and postdoctoral researcher Collin R. Payne examined the eating habits of 50 graduate students at a sports bar with an open buffet featuring chicken wings. They discovered that those eating at tables where leftover bones accumulated ate 27 percent fewer wings than those eating at tables where leftovers were removed.

A couple of years ago, Wansink led a research team led by Wansink at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign that served a free soup lunch to 54 adults. Half ate from normal 18-ounce soup bowls, while the others ate from identical bowls that were being slowly refilled through hidden tubing.

Those whose bowls were being refilled ate 73 percent more soup, consuming on average 113 more calories over 20 minutes—but were convinced they had eaten no more than those who had normal bowls.

“People use their eyes to count calories and not their stomachs,” is how Wansink put it.

In 2005 Wansink and associates gave 40 university female staff and faculty members at the University of Illinois-Champaign 30 Hershey Kisses in either clear or opaque candy jars, on their desks or six feet away. Each night, they counted the candies, then refilled the jars.

They found the women ate an average of 7.7 Kissses each day when the chocolates were in clear containers on their desks, but only 4.6 daily when they were in opaque containers on the desk. They ate an average of 5.6 daily when the Kisses were in clear jars six feet away, but only 3.1 when they were in opaque jars six feet away.

Interestingly, though the participants ate fewer candies when they were six feet away, they thought they were eating more–which suggests that when you have to expend more effort to get a treat, you’re more likely to think about what you’re eating.

In another Wansink study, adults offered six colored flavors of jellybeans mixed together in the same bowl ate 69 percent more than when the colors were each placed in separate bowls. In yet another, moviegoers given M&Ms in 10 colors ate 43 percent more than those offered the same number of M&Ms in seven colors.

Apparently, we like variety, and the more variety we see, in a candy dish or (worse) at an all-you-can-eat buffet table, the more we eat.

And then there’s the study that showed that when moviegoers were served stale popcorn in big buckets, they ate 34 percent more of it than moviegoers served stale popcorn in medium-sized buckets. When the popcorn was fresh, the difference was even greater: those with large tubs ate 45 percent more than those with medium-sized containers—even though, when asked if they ate more because of the size of the container, 77 percent of those given the large tubs said they would have eaten the same amount even if given the smaller tubs.

Sharks have been called “mindless eating machines”—but apparently, sharks aren’t alone.
Yet another Wansink-led study found that people estimate they make, on average, about 15 food- or beverage-related decisions each day. But in fact, they make more than 15 times that many—an average of 221, in the study.

All of this is contributing to a too-high intake of calories, which leads to insidious weight-gain, which can eventually lead to health problems.

Fortunately, Wansink has some suggestions: use smaller bowls, empty out snacks rather than eating them from a package (yes, he’s done a study that shows people eat less that way), always sit at least an arm’s length away from a buffet table or snack bowl, and keep tempting treats in the back of the cupboard or refrigerator, wrapped in aluminum foil.

In other words, deep-six the see-food diet in favor of “out of sight, out of mind”—and out of tummy.

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