Why We Eat More Than We Think We're Eating

July 02, 2009

Eating outdoors with friends

Ever wonder why you can easily get to the bottom of the bag of potato chips? Learn about mindless eating behaviors and tips on how to correct them.

Did you ever eat the last piece of crusty, dried-out chocolate cake even though it tasted like chocolate-scented cardboard? Ever finish eating a bag of french fries even though they were cold, limp, and soggy?

Why do we overeat food that doesn't even taste good?

In this excerpt from chapter one of his book, Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink, a food psychology professor at Cornell University, explains why we eat with our eyes and not with our stomach.

Wansink explains that many factors can affect how we eat. Some of these are plate size, presentation and environment. Even though we might think none of these are related to how much we consume, they in fact have a great deal of influence on our habits.

Plate Size

For many of us, we rely on what Wansink calls "consumption norms" to help us decide how much we should eat. For example, when you order a dish at a restaurant and it is served on a large plate with heaping portions, it is easy to unconsciously eat all of the food. We believe that because this is what's being served to us, that we should eat it - and eat it all. In the same respect, when we have a large plate and a smaller plate - both with the same amount food on them - we perceive the larger plate to have less food, leaving us feeling cheated or not as "full."

Presentation

Wansink's research shows that we are unaware of how presentation affects our eating behaviors. In one study, unknowing diners were served tomato soup in bowls that were refilled through a concealed tube. People eating from these "bottomless" bowls consumed 76% more soup than those eating from normal bowls, but when surveyed only estimated that they had eaten 5 calories more. The diners continued to eat because there was food still in the bowl. They were not paying attention to whether or not their hunger had been satisfied.

Environment

One study asked people to keep a food diary and to write down why they decided to eat and what made them stop eating a meal. Aside from actual hunger, participants claimed they started eating because of things in their environment - like just seeing the food, wanting to be with other people or simply because eating provided them with something to do while watching TV or reading.

When asked why they stopped eating, some people said they had relied on visual cues - like the person they were eating with finishing their meal - to signal that the meal was over.

People were also affected by the accessibility of the food. Cafeteria studies show that people ate more ice cream when the lid of an ice cream cooler was left open than when it was closed, and that they drank more water when a water pitcher was on their table than when it was further away.

The basic principle to maintaining a healthy diet is to think before you snack. Slow down and pay attention to what you are eating. You might be surprised what you were about to eat.

The Food Environment - The 5 S's

Keep these helpful hints in mind before you eat:

  1. Seeing it
    • Eliminate the cookie jar, or replace it with a fruit bowl
    • Wrap tempting foods in foil to make them less visible - and more forgettable
    • Place healthier foods in the front of the refrigerator and the less healthy foods in the back
  2. Structure and variety of food
    • Avoid multiple bowls of the same food - such as at parties or receptions - because they increase perceptions of variety and make you want to eat more
    • At buffets and receptions avoid having more than two different foods on the plate at the same time
  3. Size of packages and portions
    • Repackage foods into smaller containers to suggest smaller "norms"
    • Plate smaller dinner portions in advance
    • Never eat from a package - always transfer food to a plate or bowl in order to make portion estimation easier
  4. Stocked up
    • Out of sight, out of mind - reduce visibility of stockpiled foods by moving them to the basement or to a cupboard immediately after they are purchased
    • Reduce the convenience of stockpiled foods by boxing them up or freezing them
    • Stockpile healthy foods instead of their unhealthy counterparts
  5. Serving containers
    • Replace short, wide glasses with tall narrow ones
    • Reduce serving sizes by using smaller bowls and plates
    • Use smaller spoons rather than larger ones when serving oneself or when eating from a bowl

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