I’ve just read Mindless Eating and it’s pretty interesting, though I’m not sure if agree with all of the premise.
The premise is we can stop getting fat by eating less and we can change our environment to make that happen without our noticing it and feeling deprived (obviously I agree with that part). In fact this is where Dan Ariely says free will comes in (Behavioural Economics Ate my Dog). We tend to rather blindly follow cues from our environment, and never notice the extremely powerful effect it has on us (countless food related experiments in Mindless eating) yet we can control our environment. And the good thing is, once you have done the upfront thinking, considering and planning to set up your environment, you can relax and mindlessly follow your new ‘rules’ (also the point in Willpower).
Brian Wansink researches how much we eat in various set ups. They have experiments in labs (which look like living rooms) and fake restaurants, with hidden scales everywhere to weigh what you eat.
I liked the one about portion sizes, where if you give someone 200 M&Ms in a bag they will eat an average of 73 in an hour but if you give them a bag with 10 bags of 20 M&Ms people will always finish a small bag, but they will eat less of them averaging 42 M&Ms. So if you want to buy in bulk you should always portion out helpings into smaller containers. So we might want ‘one’ of something (or three!) but the the size of that ‘one’ is quite flexible. I’ve found this myself with a tray bake birthday cake cut into squares which were further cut into triangles. I would have been perfectly happy to eat a square, but one triangle was one piece so I ate just one piece.
Though the book has lots of good useful strategies to eat less without feeling you are eating less, in some ways I felt the book was at cross purposes to a healthy diet because it doesn’t use my strategy. It discusses how to snack less when watching telly, but it never considered whether, maybe, we should just not snack! (to be fair it does discuss how not to snack before dinner). Because not being able to stuff our faces with sweets at all times will make us feel deprived. In fact the people in the book are faced with such a barrage of snacks (all unhealthy) you really understand how difficult it is for people in the US to eat sensibly.
This reminds me of Gretchen Rubins’ book Better than Before on how to foster good habits. One method is abstinence, avoiding something altotether, may be easier than moderation. And having ‘bright line’ rules for what you do and don’t eat can protect you even in this super-food-saturated environment. So rather than putting your snacks into small bags, you could having a rule of ‘no sweets’ or ‘only have sweets as an actual pudding after dinner’ or (my rule) ‘no snacks, except almonds or birthday cake (about once a fortnight), but also eat proper meals so you are not hungry. Faced with the absolute barrage of junk like the people in the book, I could feel how my rules would protect me and simplify my choices (just say no. I’m not saying it wouldn’t take a bit of willpower, if I was faced with the vast amounts of snacks, like the people in Mindless Eating I’d probably end up faffing more, but abstaining would protect me from the snacks).
I wonder if the obsession with snacks is a US thing. In one case they said that when ‘European’ researchers joined the food lab they were surprised that they could do experiments at any time of day because people were willing to eat at any time, while those researchers were used, at home, to only do food experiments at breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Even Hercule Poirot agrees:
Alas that one can only eat three times a day. If one partakes of the 5 o’clock one doesn’t appreciate the dinner with the proper quality of expectant gastric juices. And the dinner, let us remember, is the supreme meal of the day.