Why Do People Overeat?

Brian Wansink, a professor at the University of Cornell, would like to let fad dieters in on a little secret. Thinking about what you eat is not the same as thinking about how you eat.

Wansink, who has a Ph.D. in marketing and consumer behavior, focuses his research on the cues that induce people to eat or not eat. One experiment he performed involved a dinner of tomato soup with a pump under the table that clandestinely replenished the bowls from the bottom. He found that some people will eat more than a quart without an empty bowl to tell them when to stop.

At a different dinner, he told half the diners that their wine was from California, and the other half that the same wine was from North Dakota. The latter group ended up eating less and leaving sooner.

Wansink has discovered lots of these little-noticed relationships between what’s in your head and what’s on your plate. People tend to eat smaller portions when they eat off of smaller plates, for example, and less popcorn during funny movies. Jumbo bags of candy encourage consumption. Short, fat glasses tend to make us pour in about 30% more Jack Daniel’s than we ever planned on drinking, simply because we pay attention to the height and not the width of the volume of liquid we pour in. Many of these discoveries are documented in Wansink’s book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.

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