Making It Work in a Mixed Diet Household Podcast

A new Meal Mentor Co-Pilot Podcast is now available on iTunes and Simplecast!

On this episode of the Meal Mentor Co-Pilot Podcast, member Adrienne describes her experience being an ethical vegan living with an omnivorous family. Adrienne shares how the meal plans fit her family’s needs, plus what she’s learned about self-care from the Meal Mentor forums.

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Don't miss this episode for more about leading by example and the link between nutrition and mental health!

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Your Summer BBQ Survival Guide

Summer is about to officially kick off with Memorial Day Weekend!

These next 3 months are an action-packed time of year, so even if you aren’t firing up the grill over the long 3-day weekend…

You’re bound to find yourself at a barbecue, potluck, or outdoor party at some point this sunny summer.

So here are 12 tips for surviving (aka staying on track!)...

#1 Have a drink or dessert, not both (and not two!).

#2 Survey the buffet and all the options BEFORE plating. Choose only what you really want, rather than taking a spoonful of everything you don't dislike.

#3 Bring a healthy dish you and everyone else can enjoy and use it as your main portion.

#4 Always start with a plate of veggies or a big salad first.

#5 If there is a grill, bring lots of vegetables!

#6 Use the smallest plate possible or eat off a napkin. If you have a big plate, you'll fill the big plate…and if you try to be good and "portion control," a little bit of food on a big plate will make you feel deprived. Feel like a king (or queen!) with an overflowing amount of food on a small plate.

#7 Converse far away from the food. Don't stand by it, talk by it, man it, or sit facing it. Sit as far away as possible, preferably with your back turned.

#8 Do your best to ignore all peer pressure-y comments made by family and friends telling you to “Just live a little!” or “Treat yourself!” Remember that they're trying to pressure you so they can feel better about their own consumption.

#9 Don't peer pressure yourself. You're not missing out. You're not missing out. (Do I need to say it again?) And "just this once" is the abracadabra to open Pandora's box…DON'T OPEN PANDORA'S BOX.

(I like to ask myself…is feeding myself things that aren’t good for me…is maintaining or reactivating a food addiction really how I can treat myself well?)

#10 Have a plan in place. Visualize your successful endeavor and you're halfway there.

#11 Walk walk walk. Don't sit and socialize, buzz like a bee!

MOST IMPORTANTLY if you do slip up or indulge…don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater! (#12)

I'm guilty of this too – when I "screw up" I go on and dig the hole deeper. I have to tell myself, "Stop friggin' digging Lindsay. Climb out of the hole while you still can!" Don't succumb to the ahscrewit moment.

Because BELIEVE ME, you’ll be 1000x happier if you stay on track.

I know that I beat myself up for DAYS – 100x longer than the 10 minutes of junk food tasted in my mouth. (And my body pays for it too.)

Hold on to the perspective! BIG picture folks!

My own personal summer barbecue mantra: “I am not here for the food. I am not here for the food.”

You’re there for the FUN and socializing!

Food is not fun or entertainment…it is fuel to HAVE FUN.

Happy summer!

P.S. If you’re a member, you also have 35+ recipes in our exclusive Potluck Cookbook (download it from your dashboard when logged in).

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The Best Time to Eat, Anabolic/Catabolic Hunger and the Lentil Effect

(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, for a number of compounding reasons, he believes is a contributing cause to obesity and diabetes.

Dr. Panda was basically saying don’t eat at night, or too late, which seemed to confirm a piece of diet advice I’ve been hearing a lot lately: This idea that you should “eat like a king at breakfast, a prince at lunch, and a pauper at dinner.”

But then all of the intermittent fasting research says the exact opposite, sort-of.

I suppose you could start your feeding window to start at breakfast, but with all the reading and researching I did around IF, I definitely got the impression that breakfast was the meal you wanted to skip, or at least delay.

In fact, Zinczenko, author of The 8-Hour Diet left no room for interpretation on this point. He wrote, “Let me apologize on behalf of an entire country full of fitness gurus, diet-book authors, trendy nutritionists, weight-loss clinic, unemployed actors working in gyms, and people who scream at chunky people on TV for a living. Almost all of us have been feeding you a line of bull. And we’ve been been feeding it to you for breakfast.”

So how can we rectify this?

OR, perhaps the real question is, if humans are evolved to eat only a few hours per day, as the last few podcast episodes have heavily suggested, what hours should we be eating?

That’s the basis to part 1 of episode 6.

SPOILER ALERT: although these findings seem completely competing right now, they actually line up quite beautifully.

Should you eat like a king at breakfast?

Remember in episode 6, when I was talking about eating less frequently and that the habit of snacking can probably be traced back to marketing endeavors? That definitely seems true for “breakfast foods.”

I’ll definitely explore marketing and its effect on obesity and our tablescape and foodscape in another episode but for now, here’s a quick history of breakfast that basically answers this King question.

Abigail Carroll, author of Three Squares: The History of the American Meal notes that in the 1600s, Americans didn’t really have “breakfast.” They ate in the morning, sure, but they mostly ate leftovers. What they ate for “breakfast” was similar to what they ate at all other meals. There wasn’t this notion that some item was a “breakfast food” the way we think of waffles or muffins or cereal like we do here in America. In fact, they didn’t even have waffles, or muffins, or cereal, but they had toast.

By the 18th century, lots of meat entered the picture, often multiple kinds of meat were added to the breakfast landscape. Carroll notes this was in addition to, not a replacement. So basically, they were just eating a lot more food and rich foods at that… very King-like.

Breakfast then changed drastically mid-to-late 19th century because of the Industrial Revolution. The Industrial Revolution changed our lifestyle on so many levels, one notable change being Americans got a whole lot more sedentary. This caused a national case of indigestion -- everyone had terrible indigestion which they called dyspepsia.

Magazines and newspapers overflowed with rhetoric about dyspepsia -- how to avoid it, what to do if you have it, and so on.

This is when and how breakfast cereal was invented. In 1863, James Caleb Jackson invented granula as a food treatment option for his patients with chronic indigestion.

His granula was basically wheat flour mixed with water and baked. That hard sheet was then broken up into clusters. These clusters were so hard and rock-like, that they had to be served with water or milk.

John Harvey Kellogg developed his own version, also called it granula, which he was sued for so he changed the name to granola. John Harvey Kellogg later invented corn flakes, and then marketers like John’s brother Will Keith Kellogg, got their hands on it and the rest is history.

They basically said hey you have this problem, eat this instead. Since it worked (not because cereal flakes were magical but because people stopped eating like a King at breakfast) and it was really convenient, it caught on.

Should you eat like a king at dinner?

That’s definitely what humans did pre-marketing.

Richard Wrangham (who you remember from episodes 2 & 3) wrote, “like every culture the main meal of the day was taken in the evening, and it was cooked... the typical pattern for hunter-gatherers [is] a light breakfast and snacks during the day, followed by an evening meal.”

To elaborate this point, Wrangham referenced several accounts written by anthropologists in the late 1800s that attest to this practice. Here’s one of those accounts, written by anthropologist Jiro Tanaka, who was observing the !Kung of the Kalahari, “as the sun begins to set, each woman builds a large cooking fire near her hut and commences cooking… the hungers return to camp in the semidarkness and each family eats supper after the darkness has fallen… only in the evening does the whole family gather to eat a solid meal and indeed people consume the greater part of their daily food then. The only exception is after a big kill, when a large quantity of meat has been brought back to camp: then people eat any number of times during the day, keeping their stomachs full to bursting, until all the meat is gone.

I found this account fascinating, particularly the feasting part which describes our modern day Thanksgiving practices, at least here in the United States...

And too as an overeater, I must confess that I enjoy the feeling of an overfull stomach. In fact, part of my problem was that I thought I had to get to that uncomfortable point to be truly satisfied or think I’d had enough to eat thanks to all that magic calorie brainwashing I discussed in episode 1.

This also made me wonder… is the preference or desire for stomach fullness evolutionary or biological?

Anabolic / Catabolic Hunger Phases

If you read Eat to Live or have seen Dr. Fuhrman’s PBS specials, this next part will be familiar.

Fuhrman says there is a difference between true hunger and what he calls “toxic hunger” which is a set of detox or withdrawal symptoms most of us experience a few hours after eating. He adds that eating processed foods creates this “toxic hunger” and the desire to overconsume calories.

Although I tend to squirm around buzzwords words like “toxic” I’m willing to roll with Fuhrman here. It’s no secret that Americans are chronically malnourished despite their overconsumption of calories because the calories they are consuming (largely from processed foods) are devoid of actual, substantial nutrition.

In fact, this has been one explanation for obesity. That although people are eating thousands of calories, because those calories offer only fragments of nutrition, the body keeps sending out hunger signals, telling you to eat more because it’s still looking for the nutrients it needs and hasn’t gotten yet… another reminder that a calorie is not a calorie as discussed in episodes 2 & 3.

Before we can dive into true hunger or toxic hunger, let’s back up and talk about digestion.

Fuhrman says there are two stages of digestion, the Anabolic stage which occurs when you are eating and then digesting, and the Catabolic stage which begins when you stop eating and your body begins to repair and heal any damage.

Using the car example, the anabolic stage is when you fill the gas tank up and the catabolic stage is when you’re actually driving the car and burning the gas.

This lines up quite perfectly with the science behind Intermittent Fasting in episode 6.

Zinczenko had a great analogy comparing the human body to an office. If you want the exact quote, I read it at the very end of episode 6, but briefly: most people go into the office, they work hard for 8 hours and then clock out while the cleaning crew cleans up the trash and repairs any damage. Z says the human body operates most efficiently on that same schedule, but if we’re eating (working) all day, the body never gets a chance to let the maintenance and cleaning crew come in to do their work. Work 8 hours. Eat 8 hours.

The anabolic/catabolic digestion process or cycle also enhances our understanding of a key point from Wrangham’s Energy Theory of Cooking--the summation that cooked food is easier to digest than raw food, and by cooking our food, we are better able to absorb the nutrients and calories in our food, which helped us grow better and evolve into the badass humans we are today. It’s all about more efficient use of internal resources.

The underlying theme or takeaway is this: eating, or specifically, DIGESTING, takes a lot of effort. It’s a big damn laborious deal, so if your body is busy breaking down food, it’s not doing anything else. And that’s a problem because our bodies have a long chore list beyond breaking down food.

This is one reason why sleep is so important. We basically need a break from ourselves and outside stimulus.

All kinds of important things happen when we sleep, like memory consolidation, but we also have to regenerate a new stomach lining once a day, and happens in the middle of the night… which is also when we are in the catabolic stage.

Quick reminder: the anabolic stage is when the body is busy digesting and the catabolic stage is when the body is repairing, detoxifying, and healing.

Here’s the problem: Most of us are addicted to the anabolic phase of digestion.

We like to feel full and satiated. We also don’t like to feel the symptoms that can happen during the catabolic phase. Symptoms like irritability, fatigue, weakness, and stomach cramping.

Now I know what you’re thinking---didn’t she just describe typical hunger symptoms or low blood sugar? I’ll get to that in a second.

Point is, when we have these catabolic phase symptoms, eating again makes us feel better because it stops the catabolic stage. But eating again also stops the healing process because it sends us right back into the anabolic stage.

AND --here’s the double whammy-- by doing that, we keep reinforcing this belief that the symptoms we felt, all that unpleasantness, were symptoms of hunger. But we weren’t actually hungry. We’re effectively rewiring our brains in the worst way.

Let me back up and talk about these catabolic phase symptoms: headaches, fatigue, nausea, weakness, mental confusion and irritability, abdominal and esophageal spasms, fluttering and cramping in the stomach are all signs of what Fuhrman calls “toxic hunger” which appear during the catabolic phase.

The more processed foods you eat, the more severe these symptoms will be. The catabolic stage isn’t supposed to be unpleasant, and if you eat appropriately and/or intermittent fast, these hunger sensations will definitely decrease.

You might remember in episode 5, when I shared my experiences with IF, that I used to suffer from terrible bouts of “hanger” and that I would frequently wake up ravenous, sometimes in the middle of the night. This all went away with IF, and my best explanation was that eating all day long created a lot of shifts and ranges in my blood sugar, which led to those unpleasant feelings. And by eating larger meals less frequently, I stayed more level. I still think that is true and a part of it, but I also think this whole “toxic hunger” from catabolic phase explains it too. Specifically, by fasting, I was having more complete cycles which led to decreased symptoms--I’ll talk more about this in a minute.

This idea of “toxic hunger” from the catabolic phase also helps explain why if you eat jelly doughnuts, you have a massive crash after, and then you feel hungry too, or why when I eat Twizzlers at the movies, I always feel “hungover” afterwards even though I didn’t consume any alcohol.

According to Fuhrman, this is straight-up withdrawal and our drug is food.

There are huge libraries of research saying that yes, food is addictive -- some more physically addictive than others. Cheese, sugar, and caffeine for example, but Fuhrman says this happens with pretty much all foods, it’s just that the more processed the “food” is, the more drug-like it is.

Meaning when we eat processed foods, our bodies become acclimated to them. Indulging the addiction is pleasurable, withdrawal is not, and that happens when the digestive tract is empty -- when we’ve sobered up, so to speak. As detoxification begins, you’ll feel uncomfortable and if you eat, you get relief. It’s kinda like “hair of the dog” with food.

This is that “toxic hunger” Fuhrman’s referring to. He says, “the confusion is compounded because when we eat the same heavy or unhealthy foods that are causing the problems to begin with, we feel better while the detoxification process is halted or delayed. This makes becoming overweight inevitable, because if we stop digesting food, even for a short time, our bodies will begin to experience symptoms of detoxification or withdrawal from our unhealthful diet. To counter this, we eat heavy meals that require a long period of digestion, or we eat too often and keep our digestive track busy and overfed almost all of the time to lessen the discomfort from our stressful diet style.”

In case I lost you back there, Catabolism isn’t supposed to be painful, but eating processed foods creates dramatic detoxification symptoms which starts this nasty cycle of eating more because we think we are hungry, but we’re not actually biologically hungry, we’re just hungry for some relief.

So how do we stop this cycle?

Fuhrman’s advice is the obvious: eat more wholesome foods. Stop eating food that’s toxic.

But intermittent fasting, or shortening your eating window, or not eating too frequently, can help too. Your mitochondria (remember from episode 6?) those organelle clusters are your personal power plants, your engine in the Prius vs Hummer example. Like all other engines, mitochondria generate waste--smog so to speak--and their smog is free radicals.

I’ll have to podcast on free radicals some other time, but very briefly: a free radical is any atom or molecule that has a single unpaired electron in an outer shell. If that just flew over your head, no big deal, here’s all you need to know right now: The free radical theory of aging states that organisms age because cells accumulate free radical damage over time. I can throw a lot of fancy terms your way like “oxidative damage” and “mitochondrial production of reactive oxygen,” but all this really means is free radicals impede the function of your mitochondria.

{Sidebar: Antioxidants (one of those oh-so-popular “buzzwords”) are reducing agents to free radicals, meaning they limit oxidative damage from free radicals. Vitamins like A, C, and E, can slow the process of aging by fighting the free radicals directly or by reducing the formation of free radicals, but there’s a limit to their power. Popping vitamins or eating fruits and vegetables naturally rich in these antioxidants is helpful, but it’s far superior to just not have the free radicals at all. Think prevention rather than treatment.}

Fuhrman says that by eating more wholesome foods--that is, by not having a toxic diet, we won’t experience toxic hunger symptoms which are basically withdrawal.

This makes sense to me, if you are eating a whole food diet, there will be less free radicals and less damage to repair and thus, less “side effects.”

Bottom line here: Like all other engines, mitochondria are more efficient, both in producing more energy (resulting in less fat storage) and less waste (creating free radicals), when they are properly maintained, which you accomplish by eating whole foods from your meal plan and also eating less frequently--keep your head out of the troph!

Here’s where catabolic and anabolic phases meets intermittent fasting:

During the catabolic stage, we have a chance to burn the glycogen stored in our muscles and liver from the anabolic phase (digestion-assimilation) since we’re not eating. Meaning, there’s no fresh strawberries so you’re finally having that pantry challenge I talked about! Yay! But if you bring strawberries into the house and eat them, the pantry stops being cleaned out and the catabolic phase abruptly ends. Boo!

And here’s another double whammy -- your body must complete the catabolic phase before you can experience “true hunger” which is why the 8-16 fasting works. It’s guaranteeing you finish your catabolic cycle. (Symptoms for true hunger are enhanced taste sensation, increased salivation, and a gnawing throat sensation.)

For a triple whammy, when we are breaking down our body fats (which is the goal for weight-loss), those detoxification symptoms can get even more unpleasant. Cleaning out that pantry is very much a chore, one we want to abandon mid-way through.

And for a quadruple whammy--the more overweight you are, the more awful the detoxification symptoms will be. That is, an obese person is going to feel a lot worse going into the catabolic stage after eating donuts than a normal weight person would feel. And the more withdrawal symptoms you have, the more you’ll be directed to overconsume. It’s a vicious cycle.

I think this explains why intermittent fasting can be so unpleasant for people, especially in the beginning, and why dieting and weight-loss seems so much harder the more weight you have to lose. It isn’t just that you have a long road ahead, but that your road has a lot more potholes and fallen trees getting in the way.

The Second Meal Effect (formerly the Lentil Effect)

In episodes 2 and 3 we learned that a calorie is not always a calorie because we absorb some calories better than others. My big example was oranges versus Oreos and how you probably won’t take in every calorie of bioavailability in an orange, but you’re probably going to assimilate every calorie in an Oreo.

Turns out there is even more to that -- that eating certain foods also creates a lasting effect in your body that can dictate how much you will or will not absorb or store in the next meal.

The Lentil Effect is this: the consumption of lentils blunts the sugar spike of foods consumed hours later at a subsequent meal. This happens because lentils are so rich in prebiotics that they create a feast for your friendly flora (those gut bugs I keep foreshadowing) which then feeds YOU with beneficial compounds such as propionate, that relaxes your stomach and slows the rate at which sugars are absorbed in your system.

Later research revealed chickpeas and other legumes have a similar influence like the lentils, so now scientists call this the “second-meal effect.”

I also think it’s pretty reasonable to assume it’s not just beans and lentils that are magic… that any sort of low-glycemic meal can have a positive effect on your blood sugar at that meal, and then again at the subsequent.

Citing one study from The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, “breakfast carbohydrate tolerance is improved when low-GI foods are eaten the previous evening.”

What action can we take from this? if you’re going to eat some high glycemic food like white rice, potatoes, or pasta, consider having some beans or lentils with it.

You’ll see we do this a lot with dinners on the meal plans such as fan favorite Big Mac Potatoes, Cheezeburger Casserole and Spanish Rice. Even some of our breakfast foods, like smashing beans on toast with avocado, or the very British baked beans on toast, are great examples. Breakfast burritos -- vegan ones with refried beans or tofu scramble, or vegetarian ones with eggs and beans -- are incredibly popular because they are so filling and I think this might explain why. It doesn’t just taste good to us, we feel good from the boost of carbohydrates, but the legumes keep it all more stabilized.

Download your free research-based 7-day meal plan at getmealplans.com and leave the guesswork and science to me.

For next week's final post I'll be back answering the question, “Are some of us meant to be fat? Is there obesity by design? Have we evolved or adapted to obesity?

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Managing Multiple Sclerosis on a Plant-Based Diet Podcast

A new Meal Mentor Co-Pilot Podcast is now available on iTunes and Simplecast!

On this episode of the Meal Mentor Co-Pilot Podcast, Gary shares his experience coping with Multiple Sclerosis and how he’s taking the initiative to be stronger than his diagnosis.

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Gary explains how the meal plans and exercise have improved his health, what it’s like to be a plant-based man, and he gets honest about how he finally stopped weight cycling.

Don't miss this episode!

P.S. Do you love listening to the podcast? Show your support by leaving a review on iTunes.

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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.

Weak Willpower

“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.

For example:

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?

Breakfast cereal.

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.

There are so many wonderful tips in Wansink’s books Mindless Eating and Slim By Design that I could talk about them all day and all night.

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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Finding Balance in Diet and Social Situations

A new Meal Mentor Co-Pilot Podcast is now available on iTunes and Simplecast!

On this episode of the Meal Mentor Co-Pilot Podcast, member Ali describes her experience managing her eating disorder and how she's learned to handle social situations on a plant-based diet.

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Don't miss this episode for more on using the Meal Mentor forums for support and finding empowerment in making healthy decisions!

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