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