Hidden Persuaders that Hijack Your Hunger (+ How to Stop Overeating)
(This post is also a podcast episode! Listen here.)
In episode 6, I discussed Dr. Panda’s theory that artificial light led to an artificial extension of our feeding times, which he believes is a contributing cause to obesity and diabetes.
There’s plenty of correlation and regression analysis, as well as qualitative human research and mice studies that support Dr. Panda’s theory.
You’ll have to listen to episode 6 for the full scoop, but even if (for arguments sake) lightbulbs and subsequent delayed feeding times were or ARE a contributing cause to our obesity problem, the fix seems easy enough: eat sooner (and batch cooking your meal plans on the weekend can definitely help with that)
...but accepting, or even just considering Dr. Panda’s lights theory, opens up an even bigger can of worms:
What else in our environment is a contributing cause to obesity?
How much you eat is largely determined by your surroundings.
We’re nudged far more by our eating environment than by our deliberate choices.
Subtle influences like friends and family, names, numbers, colors shapes, smells, labels, packages, plates, and yes, lighting too, can make us overeat.
And although I buy into the whole “knowledge is power” thing, and I think it’s incredibly important to understand the underlying science of how and why (that’s why the Shortcut to Slim podcast exists!), I don’t think education or knowledge by itself is all that effective.
I see this every day with Meal Mentor's members. They have the education. They know EXACTLY what they need to do and why, but it’s not happening. They know an apple is better than a bag of potato chips… but they eat the potato chips anyway.
They’re failing with their follow-through and I was in this boat too. I still am in some ways because I still live in the real world and not a bubble.
Point is, while it’s great to understand nutrition and science, real, lasting weight-loss comes primarily from behavior modification and environmental changes that help you make better choices without thinking about it.
What signals us to eat eat EAT has been the study and life work of Brian Wansink PhD. (If the name sounds familiar, it’s because I fangirl out on him in pretty much every episode of the STS podcast…)
Wansink’s research shows us how as all these seemingly innocuous things (like lightbulbs) make us overeat, which I admit is depressing, but it’s also hugely empowering when you realize that the smallest change (like not leaving cereal on the counter) can make you lose 21 pounds! Or at the very least, these little changes can set you up to be “naturally thin.”
You might remember from episode 5 when I talked about “naturally” skinny people. That they don’t have a higher metabolism. Some may have higher N.E.A.T. (little movements like twitching that burns more calories) but mostly, “naturally skinny people” restrict their eating to some degree and we just don’t see it. Wansink’s research adds to this.
In fact, Wansink + team have an expression in their Lab:
“If you want to be skinny, do what skinny people do.”
But before I dig into Wansink’s research further, I have to share something.
I’d written this episode several weeks ago, long before the Biggest Loser article came out. I figured, no biggie, I’d slide this episode down to the 8th slot, deal with the NYT and proceed as planned.
I was all set to record, when I realized I was missing a book quote. I opened my copy of Slim by Design, and my eyes caught two words “Biggest Loser” -- in the introduction. (Here is where I admit I never read introductions because I lack patience).
The stars aligned, wait until you hear this:
Wansink writes, “One sentence summarizes 25 years of my research: Becoming slim by design works better than trying to become slim by willpower. That is, it’s easier to change your eating environment than to change your mind… while there are many solutions to mindless eating, most of them will go undiscovered because we don’t look for them. Instead, we’re too focused on the food and not our surroundings. We’re too focused on eating less of one thing, more of another thing, or on launching into the new “Yeast and Potting Soil Diet” we read about on the Internet."
“I recently spoke at a convention in Washington D.C. along with a winner of the TV show The Biggest Loser. During his season, he’d weighed in at over 400 pounds and weighed out at half of that. During this over-the-top-drama, he lost half his weight--200 pounds--by visualizing, sweating, and starving himself thin. Fun times."
“After our speeches, we grabbed a speedy buffet lunch before heading to the airport. He’s a funny, positive, interesting guy, who it seemed strange that he’d sometimes stop his animated conversation in mid sentence to say things like, “Hey, did you notice that I picked out the smallest piece of chicken?” or “Look, I didn’t take any bread!” AFter a while, it became clear that he wasn’t making these comments for me. He was making them for himself. He was reminding himself that he was full-time Willpower Man. But it took so much concentration that each time he made the right choice, he wanted to announce it."
“I told him I was doubly impressed with his willpower around food because I have none. For me an “all-you-can-eat” buffet is an “eat-all-they’ve-got” buffet. So instead of relying on willpower, I have to change my eating environment so it helps me eat less. I take the smallest plate, serve myself salad first, and so on. Easy actions that help me eat less. He changed his mind. I changed my eating environment.”
And to think.. I was genuinely worried how I was going to string these episodes together…
The heart of this episode is what I think the Biggest Loser article wanted to say “it’s not your fault” but I have the actual science.
That is, obesity is not caused purely from inactivity, bread, rice, gluttony, weak willpower, a bad childhood, etc. It is caused by overeating, mindless eating, and a tsunami of triggers making us eat more than we should.
“Willpower alone won’t conquer bad eating habits for 90% of us” writes Wansink “Fortunately there are a lot of small, innovative, and proven solutions from behavioral economics and psychology that will help make us become slim by design.”
If you’re a member of Meal Mentor, you’ve heard me bash willpower dozens of times. I get that from Wansink. He’s right, though. Our willpower is too wimpy. The solution is to make changes that don’t require willpower at all. One of my strategies (I teach this as part of the Slim Team Program) is to create a rule. “I do or I do not.” Having a rule bypasses the need for willpower altogether. The decision is already made. You know exactly where you stand on the issue. Most of us have implemented lots of rules. Matrimony for example, or veganism, for a lot of my readers.
Restaurants, supermarkets, workplaces, and even our homes have made it easier for us to overeat.
You’re probably nodding along thinking about the giant servings restaurants offer us or how candy bars are so oh-so-conveniently located at hand level in the check-out line. That’s all true but it doesn’t stop there.
Hidden persuaders--cues that cause you to overeat--are everywhere and most of these clues short-circuit your hunger and taste signals, which means you’ll eat even if you’re not actually hungry or the food doesn’t taste very good. (Damn!)
We believe our eyes, not our stomachs
Short of eating until it hurts, most of us rely on external clues to tell us we’ve had enough.
And can you guess what the most popular sensory feedback clue is?
A clean plate or an empty bowl or bag. EAT UNTIL IT’S ALL GONE.
My two favorite studies that illustrate this point were Wansink’s popcorn study and soup bowl study.
In the popcorn study, Wansink + team gave moviegoers 5-day-old stale popcorn. (It was so stale it squeaked when you ate it). The moviegoers didn’t know it was stale initially, only that it was free. Every moviegoer got their own bucket so there would be no sharing, though some moviegoers got a medium size bucket while others got a larger bucket.
Now, you’d think after a handful or two the moviegoers would realize it was 5-day-old-nasty-stale-popcorn and stop eating it, but they didn’t. Throughout the movie they would eat a few handfuls, put it down, then pick it up a few minutes later. The popcorn wasn’t good enough to eat all at once, but the moviegoers couldn’t stop themselves.
Here’s the even crazier thing: Those with the large buckets ate 53% more. That is roughly the equivalent of 21 more dips into the bucket… OF 5-DAY-OLD STALE POPCORN.
Wansink + team ran other popcorn studies in different cities with different variables and the results were always the same:
People eat more when you give them a bigger container.
It didn’t matter if the popcorn was fresh or 14 days old, or the moviegoers were hungry or had just had lunch right before the movie.
Wansink wrote, “Did people eat because they liked popcorn? No. Did they eat because they were hungry? No. They ate because of all the cues around them--not only the size of the popcorn bucket, but also other factors such as the sound of people eating popcorn around them, the eating scripts we take to movie theaters with us” and so on.
Wansink explains why we like to do this by using the analogy of a jogger.
He said, “If [a jogger] decides to jog on a treadmill until she’s tired, she constantly has to ask herself, “Am I tired yet? Am I tired yet? Am I tired yet?” But if she says, “I’m going to jog to the school and back” she doesn’t have to constantly monitor how tired she is. She set the target, and jogs until she’s done."
Considering we make some 200 decisions about food per day, it’s no wonder our brains take this jogger mentality with food. A clean plate or empty bowl is our food finish line. We can dish it and space out, eating until it’s all gone.
Realizing just how powerful the “clean your plate” notion is, Wansink decided to test it with a bottomless soup bowl. The subjects didn’t know it was bottomless--unbeknownst to them, the soup bowl automatically refilled itself, but at such a slow rate that the people eating the soup would believe they were making progress, even though the bowl never completely emptied. They also sat at a table with people who didn’t have bottomless soup bowls, so they could see a perceived end.
After 20 minutes, the subjects were asked questions which made them stop eating. Those with the bottomless bowls ate 73% more, which equated to more than a QUART of extra soup! (MORE THAN A QUART!!)
Here’s the most shocking part: when asked how many calories they ate, they estimated the same as the normal bowl people.
Both groups underestimated--the normal bowl folks estimated 127 calories when it was really 155 calories, but the bottomless folks also estimated 127 calories when they really ate about 268 calories).
Wansink also conducted other, similar studies with identical results. I especially liked the one dealing with chicken wings. The waitresses left the discarded bones on some tables, while other tables were constantly bussed clean. No big surprise that people at the bussed tables ate more wings.
Which brings me to the good news. One strategy that’s helped me overcome my overeating is a maintaining a food log. Not just for accountability but when I’m feeling hungry and know I shouldn’t be hungry, I take a look at my log to remind myself what I’ve just eaten. “Just look at that big, healthy dinner you had an hour ago. You aren’t really hungry, something else is going on -- what is happening with your emotions?”
Wansink recommends pre-plating your food, that is--putting everything you want to eat on your plate BEFORE you start eating. “We find that when people preplate their food, they eat about 14% less than when they take smaller amounts and go back for seconds or thirds” he wrote.
Now for the big, stinky caveat that pops up in every episode.
While SEEING your food helps you eat less, it can also make you eat more.
Wansink’s research shows that the average woman who keeps potato chips on the counter weighs 8 pounds more than her neighbor who doesn’t.
This makes sense. Chips are irresistibly tempting and you can’t eat just one.
I think we can all agree potato chips make you fat, but potato chips aren’t the most dangerous food to have out...
Can you guess what that food is?
Wansink’s research show that if you have even ONE open box of breakfast cereal anywhere in sight, you’ll weigh 21 pounds more than your neighbor who does not.
Why? The first thing you see when you walk through the door is yummy, convenient food.
We also can’t forget about the rat study using puffed pellets (like cereal flakes) from episode 4.
Circling back to the stale popcorn study, you’ll remember that the bigger the bucket, the more stale popcorn people ate...
Wansink + team saw the exact same results with different foods--even foods people had to prepare themselves like spaghetti.
In the spaghetti study for example, people who were given the larger package of pasta, sauce and meat typically prepared 23% more (150 extra calories) than those given the medium packages.
Ultimately Wansink + team concluded that the bigger the package, the more people served and the more they served, the more they ate. (You eat 92% of what you serve yourself, btw.)
It didn’t matter what the food was--popcorn, dry spaghetti, or M&Ms, if it comes from a bigger or larger package, you’ll eat 20 to 25% more.
The M&M study was especially dramatic. People who were given a half pound bag ate an average of 71 M&Ms during the 1-hour movie while those who were given the 1-pound bag ate an average of 137 M&Ms, almost twice as many (264 more calories).
Wansink conducted this study with 47 different items by the way, including non-foods like shampoo, laundry detergent, and pet kibble. It was always the same result: The bigger the package, the more people used, poured, and/or consumed.
But there was ONE exception: liquid bleach. People didn’t overpour that.
So why does this happen?
Wansink says we look for cues and signals that tell us how much to eat (or use). One of these signals is the size of the package. We use that as a sort of baseline to figure out what is an appropriate amount by comparison---by percentage of the original size (even if it’s jumbo).
If it’s any comfort, even professionals were tripped up by these optical illusions. Professional veteran bartenders for example, were unable to pour a standard (1.5 oz) shot of alcohol straight out of the bottle. Nutrition PhD students bombed too--with ice cream. People who eat, sleep, lecture, and study nutrition were totally tripped up by the size of bowls and ice cream scoops. The bigger the bowl or ice cream scoop, the more they served themselves.
Here’s a data point from another one of Wansink’s studies: People sitting within two tables of the bar drink an average of 3 more beers or mixed drinks (per table) than those sitting one table farther away.
Wansink isn’t ready to draw any conclusions about this yet, but he thinks that sitting next to the bar might make you think it’s more normal to order a second drink because you see so many more drinks being made and poured.
What does all this mean? Do we have to forfeit our Costco memberships? Not quite. The lesson here is:
#1 never eat directly out of a package or box, put your snacks in a separate dish #2 if you are going to buy the jumbo size, repackage it into smaller containers. #3 for the love of kale, use small plates, small bowls, small spoons. ALL THE SMALL THINGS
One last warning note about shopping at Costco: You’ll not only SERVE more out the the jumbo containers, you’ll also eat what you buy at twice the normal rate the first week. This is especially true for easy-to-consume foods like cookies, crackers, juices, and microwave popcorn.
In one study, people who filled their cupboards with chips, juices, ramen, and so on, ate HALF of everything they bought within the first week.
So #4, if you buy 200 of something, put 3 or 4 in the pantry and leave the rest in the basement.
AND if you’re starting to think an empty kitchen is the solution a la you can’t boobytrap yourself if it’s empty... emptiness is it’s own boobytrap. Empty kitchens make you fat because they cause you to overeat elsewhere.
Bottom line: In sight is in stomach. Make the most visible foods those that you want to be eating, whether it’s your meal plan meals in clear containers, front and center in the fridge, or apples in a bowl on the counter.
Store the foods you’re trying to limit or avoid out of sight, and father back in the cupboard while you’re at it because Wansink’s research says you’re 3x more likely to eat the first food you see in your cupboard than the 5th one.
Not having food ON the dinner table, for example, has made a huge difference with my overeating tendencies.
His research is always a constant reminder and explanation of why the meal plans have worked so well for me and other members. Portions are already decided for you.
You don’t have to guess or eyeball or fall victim to external clues that force you to overeat or over serve. Pre-portioning your servings helps you create boundaries while boosting satisfaction.
Even things like food color can make you overeat or leave you not feeling satisfied, which is something we’ve been taking into consideration with the meal plans too, thanks to Wansink’s research.
To close out this episode and string it back to the previous ones: we know a calorie is not a calorie and changing WHAT you’re eating can definitely help you along (just like it’s a lot easier to run a marathon if you quit smoking first) but having a perfect diet works best when paired with behavior modification and appropriate environmental changes like portion control (my overeating episode is a testament to that!)
The perfect diet is the diet you don’t know you’re on. As Wansink says, make it easy on yourself so you make good choices without all the thinking… create an environment so you make healthy decisions on autopilot.
Download your free research-based 7-day meal plan at getmealplans.com and leave the guesswork and science to me.
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