Mindless Eating in Minneapolis, with Dr Wansink

27 06 2010

Dr Brian Wansink endorses the New Whole Grains Cookbook and The New Vegetarian

We all like to think that we are masters of our own domains. We choose our food based on taste, nutrition, or cost, and we are very discriminating in our taste.

Except that we don’t. And we aren’t.

Enter Dr Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think. Dr Wansink has made a career out of figuring out how people make the food choices they do. You have probably heard of some of his experiments, like the classic one in which he built a self-refilling bowl of soup, which people ate multiple bowls worth of soup from and felt exactly as satisfied as when they had eaten only one. Or his study of exactly how many candies an office worker would eat from a dish depending on how many steps away from the desk it was placed. He and his minions also liked to lurk out in front of movie theaters and give people varying sizes of bags of stale popcorn, with the promise that the moviegoer would give them the leftovers at the end. The larger the bag of popcorn, the more the person ate, no matter how stale.

Dr Wansink is the Chair at the Applied Economics and Management Department at Cornell University, where he directs the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, where he has free reign to set up fascinating experiments. With a dining room equipped with hidden cameras, he can set up groups of people to eat, while manipulating the visual cues as well as what they are told about the food they are eating. The results can be shocking.

We really are easily lead.

Vegetarians would do well to understand a phenomenon that Dr Wansink has discovered called the “healthy halo” effect. In these experiments, a meal is served as “fast food” complete with paper bags and take out containers. The subjects then estimate the calories and the heathfulness of the meal. The very same meal is then served with different, more upscale cues, like silverware and tablecloths, and described as being from a healthier sounding restaurant. The second group also estimates calories and healthfulness.

Consistently, the exact same food is estimated at almost half its true caloric content when it is healthy sounding, while the “fast food” diners are pretty close to the mark.

How this applies to real life is that when we go to a healthy seeming restaurant, or pick what seems like the healthy pick on the menu, we often assume it is lower in calories and fat than it actually is. Vegetarians often fall into ordering a cheese-bomb pasta drenched in olive oil, or a big salad covered in rich ingredients, and the “healthy halo” effect leaves us not only feeling virtuous, but ready for another meal because we almost feel deprived.

I recently had breakfast with Dr Wansink, an old friend of mine, and the funniest doctor I know. We went to a nice French restaurant, where we both read the menu over, and were not fooled by any of the alluring descriptions. Not a bit. We were detached and completely cool toward the dark, padded seats and nice silverware. And then he had macadamia nut pancakes with branded caramelized bananas, I had scrambled free range local eggs with truffles. I thought about ordering the granola with yogurt, but I knew it would be just as many calories. I outsmarted the healthy halo effect, ate something kind of decadent, and was too busy talking to finish it all.

Because I didn’t eat mindlessly.

That time.

Thanks Dr Wansink, for educating us about how little we really know!


We Can Put a Man on The Moon, But Can We Make Good Vegan Cheese?

20 06 2010

I’ve made no secret of my dislike for fake cheeses. For that matter, I have expressed open contempt for weird mock meats.

(for a previous post on the downside of soy burgers, click here)


I figure that the pursuit of a vegan lifestyle should also include the pursuit of real food. I know that is kind of old-fashioned. There seems to be a whole new crop of vegans who eagerly embrace vegan marshmallows and lookalike candy bars, and more power to them. All of those products have made great leaps in quality to meet the demand.

So, when I kept hearing that there was a new vegan cheese that was really good, I had to pause. For at least 15 solid years, the same slimy, non-melty soy cheeses had populated the spot next to the tofu at all our stores. Where was this mythic cheese? If it was so good, why didn’t anyone carry it in Minneapolis?

I was wary. So wary, in fact, that when vegan recipe development work came my way, I stuck to home made nutcheese, or a little tofutti cream cheese.

Then the other day I noticed that Daiya vegan cheese had appeared on the shelf, alongside another new brand called Teese. I figured, hey, they must really have put some R and D in to be able to tout the meltability and stretchiness of the new stuff. Daiya is not soy-based, while Teese is made from soy.

Had someone finally cracked the code, and created that elusive cheese substitute that would satisfy the lactose intolerant, the vegan, and maybe even their families and friends?

So I grabbed one of each, and set about to do two tests. One, a simple plate of nachos in the microwave, and the second, a pizza on the grill. Here is what I made.

Testing for "stretch" and "melt"

The Nachos with Daiya Cheddar Shreds (the yellow side) and with Teese mozzarella were pretty good. The first requirement of a nacho cheese is that it helps stick the toppings to the chips, and they both did. The Daiya melted more creamily, and as you can see in the photo, it did stretch. It was also more flavorful. The Mozz style was very soft and a little runny, but still better than the rubbery old kinds.

The pizza below was made with a pre-baked whole wheat crust, and I used the grill to melt the cheese. The cheeses took a bit of time to melt, and the mozzarella style got kind of weepy, giving off water into the toppings. Again, the Daiya was the taste winner, as we sprinkled salt and pepper on the white cheese. The Teese did not stretch, but it was melted and did stick the toppings to the pizza.

Note the wateriness coming from the white cheese

From a nutrition standpoint, Daiya Cheddar and dairy cheddar are quite different. While the non-dairy cheese is lower in fat and sodium, and contains no cholesterol, it’s also much lower in protein.

1 ounce (1/4 cup shreds)

Daiya                                                                                           Dairy

90 calories                                                                           113 calories

6 g fat                                                                                      9 g fat

0 cholesterol                                                                     29 cholesterol

250 mg sodium                                                               174 mg sodium

1 g protein                                                                         7 g protein

So, I’d say that both vegan cheeses are a great improvement over older brands, and that Daiya is the best. It’s best if you let go of expecting it to taste like cheddar. It’s pleasantly cheese-like, and if you don’t do dairy, it is a convenient way to make your old favorites.

Will it satisfy your family and friends? Maybe. As with other stand-ins, it’s best holding down lots of flavorful toppings and liberally sauced. If you don’t do dairy, you will certainly adjust to it and come to crave it.

Congrats to Daiya and Teese, for making vegan cheese better!

Too Much Meat Puts Girls at Risk

13 06 2010

Too many burgers put girls at risk

In the last century, girls have undergone a curious change. The age at which they grow breasts and begin menstruating has dropped. 40 years ago, girls grew breasts 2 years later, and got their periods several months later. This might not seem like much, but the earlier that these events occur, the higher a woman’s risk of developing cancer in her lifetime.

This trend has been studied and noted for many years, notably in the Falling Age of Puberty… Study by the Breast Cancer Fund (click below)


The China Study and many others have noted the trend, and it is generally assigned to a number of factors. A rich diet, obesity, and hormones from meats and plastics have often been pointed to as causes.

A recent study singles out one factor as the cause- too much meat.

The research, led by Dr Imogen Rogers from the University of Brighton, involved a study of 3,000 girls taking part in the University of Bristol’s Children of the 90s study.

The doctors looked at the girls’ dietary intake at the ages of three and seven years and how likely they were to have started their periods by the time they attended a research clinic aged around 12½ years.

They found that girls who had a higher intake of meat and protein at three and seven were more likely to have started their periods by 12½ years old than girls who ate less meat and protein.

Their report found 49 per cent of girls eating more than 12 portions of meat a week at the age of seven had started their periods by age 12 ½, compared to only 35 per cent of those who ate less than four portions of meat a week.

The experts are careful to emphasize that this in no way means that girls should become vegetarian. They can’t say that. So, if you are someone who just has to feed your family meat, cut back. Way back. Children are perfectly healthy on a balanced vegetarian diet, I promise you. The myth that more meat builds stronger kids is leading to such over-consumption that children are suffering for it later.

Feeding children a healthy diet can be challenging, but it’s worth doing. They need to be eating lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains, anyway, so less meat just makes more room for those. Just don’t announce it and make it tasty.

For a previous post on the benefits of soy foods for girls, and a recipe for delicious chocolate pudding, click the link below.


Or try this simple vegan burrito recipe on foodista!

Vegan Veggie Burritos

Are Vegetarians Really More Compassionate?

6 06 2010

Is your amygdala getting warm?

The debate about nature versus nurture will go on forever. Do people come with most of their personal traits already decided, or can we be shaped by the way we grow up? Can we change ourselves? We may now know what leads some people to go meat-free, and it may well be hard-wired into their brains. On the other hand, they may have changed the way their brains behave by holding strong beliefs. Either way, vegetarians’ and vegans’ brains register different reactions to the suffering of others, and it’s measurable.

In a recent study, neurologists used MRI to monitor the brain activity of the test subject while they were shown a series of pictures. The subjects consisted of 20 omnivores, 19 vegetarians, and 21 vegans. Each subject was shown 150 random images, 70 of which were neutral, 40 were of bad things being done to humans, and 40 were of bad things being done to animals. The scientists looked at the activity in the areas of the brain where compassion resides, and found differences did exist.

If you are wondering where compassion resides, according to experts, it’s in a few spots in the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex.

Omnivores, Vegetarians and Vegans all responded to images of other humans being harmed, thankfully. But Vegetarians and Vegans seemed to respond more to both the human pictures and to the animal suffering.

It may come as no surprise to you that there are people who are more concerned with animal suffering, and that they choose not to eat animals because of it. What is interesting about all of this is the question of which came first? Do kids come out of the womb with brains that steer them toward compassionate eating? Or does life experience and learning make a person care more about the pain an animal feels?

According to the study, we differentiate between other humans (conspecifics) and animals (non-conspecifics) the same way, but omnivores share the pain of other humans, while being able to separate from the pain of animals.

So how does this play out? Well, for one thing, putting up billboards with pictures of caged veal calves may not really get the desired effect from an omnivore. The vegetarians at PETA might be hoping for a surge of compassion that an omnivore brain just doesn’t have for a “non-conspecific.”

Compassion may be in your wiring, or modeled for your developing brain at an early age by a loving parent. There does seem to be a group of people who reach a certain age and just don’t get why we pet the cat and eat the cow.

Still, I don’t think that compassion is the only reason people change the way they eat. People have always had valid health and environmental reasons to quit the beef. Plenty of people who live as omnivores for most of their lives change their dietary patterns for health reasons, not necessarily concern for critters.

We are seeing a new breed of logical low-meat eaters, based on self preservation and environmental concerns. The new veg may not have the same parts of the amygdala light up when shown a feedlot, but she still gets how unsustainable it is.

And to the question of vegetarians all being compassionate, well, we are all individuals. From my limited experience, some vegetarians are more likely to care about animals, but both omnivores and veg heads are about the same when it comes to people.

For the study click the link below:


White Foods, Are They Worse For You Than Meat?

1 06 2010

Heart Healthy Breakfast Recipe to Follow

White foods. We all love them. Sugar and refined starches are like culinary crack, giving you a rush and a mouthful of sweet comfort. They are also high on the glycemic index, and cause your blood sugars to spike in a most unhealthy way.

They are also undermining the health benefits of not eating meat.
According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.People who cut saturated fats while increasing intake of refined carbohydrates like white bread and pasta have a higher risk of heart attack. People who cut sat fats and increased consumption of unrefined whole grains and vegetables improved their heart health.

The 12 year study of over 5,000 people, done at Denmark’s Aarhus University Hospital, suggests that saturated fat does indeed play an important role in heart attack risk, but that it is the kind of carbohydrate foods consumed that makes the big difference.

So maybe all those “crunchy granola” Hippie types were right all along.

The take away here is that where heart health is concerned, whole grains, fruits and vegetables are crucial. Ovo-lacto vegetarians can indulge in some dairy and eggs, which both contain sat fats, as long as they pile on the plant foods. Flexitarians can make a little meat work, as long as they keep it balanced with lots of plants.

Take a look at what you eat in a day. Are you falling into the white foods trap? We are surrounded with unhealthy choices, all of which offer the seduction of convenience. White bread, white pasta, and of course, sugary sweets are everywhere. Chips, cookies and of course, the liquid calories of soda are not helping your heart health one bit.

Giving up meat, or cutting way back, is a great step for heart health. But you are not supporting that healthy heart if you don’t add whole, complex carb foods in its place.

The easiest way to add whole grains to your diet is by shopping carefully. Buy breads, pastas and cereals that list “whole wheat flour” as the first ingredient, and no other flours like unbleached or just “wheat.” Look for ways to eat more veggies and fruits, like adding a salad or a bowl of veggie soup to your lunch and dinner. Snack on foods like popcorn, fruit and nuts.

The simplest meal of the day to make whole grain is breakfast. Unless you are hooked on little marshmallows, it is simple enough to find a whole grain packaged cereal. It’s even cheaper to make a simple bowl of oatmeal or muesli. Add satisfying protein with either dairy or non-dairy milks, yogurts or kefir. Nuts and seeds add crunch and healthy fats. Pile on the fruits.

Cutting back on or eliminating meat is a great step to heart health. Step two is to support your health with whole foods, all day long.

Crazy-Ugly Fruit and Protein Oat Cereal

Full disclosure, this recipe is from a previous post. It’s a great way to eat oats in the summer, since you can put it together and keep it in the refrigerator. It’s also pretty tasty, once you get past the oats looking purplish.

2 cups bing cherry juice (all fruit juice)

1 cup thick rolled oats

1/2 cup dried goji berries or cranberries

2 tablespoons protein powder (rice, soy, hemp or whey, take your pick)

kefir or non-dairy milk or yogurt and sweetener to taste

In a 2 quart saucepan, bring the juice to a simmer, stir in oats and dried fruit. Cook for 5-10 minutes, stirring every few. When the oats are soft, take off the heat and let stand, covered, for 5 minutes. Stir in the protein powder, add more juice or water if you like it thinner, then serve with kefir or non-dairy alternatives and sweetener to taste.

Granola on FoodistaGranola