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Are you a willpower wimp? Then change your environment to lose weight

September 22, 2014


Need to lose weight? Instead of changing yourself, you might consider changing your environment.

Making changes — big and small — to the world around you is much easier than mustering the willpower to refrain from eating high-calorie foods, says Brian Wansink, who has for years studied our eating habits, currently as director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University.

And those changes can mean that your diet is more healthful without working so hard.

Wansink dismisses the popular idea that mindful eating is the way to eat what we need without overeating junk food. "For 90 percent of us, the solution to mindless eating is not mindful eating — our lives are just too crazy and our willpower’s too wimpy," he writes in his new book, "Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life."

The book includes ways restaurants, schools and other institutions can offer more healthful food, and provides scorecards for readers to figure out whether their homes and workplaces, the restaurants and supermarkets they patronize and their kids’ school meals, are designed for slim.

Restaurants and food companies are likely to change if they can make more money, Wansink noted in a telephone interview. "If a bunch of consumers say, ‘Is there something you can come up with that’s not French fries or a boring salad? I would eat here more often,’" then companies are likely to listen, he said.

They’re in the profits business, not in business to make people fat, he said. It’s a lesson Wansink and his students stumbled upon when they realized that the bigger the package of food, the more people ate of it, and that consumers would pay more for smaller packets that would help them control how much they ate.

"Eventually, Nabisco/Kraft gave my theory a run and launched the 100-calorie snack pack," Wansink writes. It’s the sort of change that helps people eat less with no effort.

"Most of our lives have made us fat by design," Wansink said. So it’s time, he said, to make ourselves thin the same way. Here are some of his findings and suggestions; pick those that work for you, he says.

— If you come home through your kitchen door, you’ll weigh more than your neighbor who goes home through another room. Solution? Kind of obvious.

— Wansink and his researchers spent a lot of time watching and cataloging the behavior of people who ate at buffet restaurants. The slim diners scouted out the entire spread before taking any food and then cherry-picked their favorites. Heavy diners went straight for the plates and started piling on from the start of the line. And thin diners sat far from the buffet facing away from it. You can guess what the others did.

— If your plate is the same color as your food, you’re likely to serve yourself 18 percent more food. You can either buy new dishes, or color-code your meals if you want to eat less. But here’s a hint: White plates and lots of pasta, potatoes and rice? Maybe not. Smaller plates are better, too.

— Clear the counters! The average woman who had potato chips on her counter weighed 8 pounds more than a neighbor who did not, Wansink writes. Big deal, it’s chips, you say? Get this: Woman with a box of breakfast cereal visible anywhere in the kitchen weighed 21 pounds more than that neighbor who kept it in the cupboard, Wansink writes.

— If you are really serious, move your pantry food to a closet elsewhere in the house and that closet’s stuff into the kitchen closet. Or put up shelves in a faraway room to hold the food. That, Wansink writes, will decrease "browsing" for snacks and make you think before the food gets to your mouth.

— Buying in bulk saves money, right? But Wansink writes that one study showed people ate half the chips, cookies, ramen noodles and the like in the first week — regardless of how much they bought. What to do? Buy only healthful foods in bulk. Or repackage the items once you get home and store some far from the kitchen, he writes.

— Pay attention to the menu. On average, Wansink writes, a dish described as "buttery" has 102 more calories than a similar one not described that way. Crispy? Adds 131 calories, he writes.

— To lessen cravings while in the supermarket, chew gum, Wansink says. When he and colleagues gave shoppers gum at the start of a shopping trip, they bought 7 percent less junk food than their empty-mouthed fellow shoppers.

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