Mind over platter: How spatial cues affect our habits – the case of mindless eating

– By Ben Brayshaw

There’s no hiding the fact that we are facing an obesity epidemic. The number of overweight people in the world outweighs that of the undernourished by a ratio of almost two to one, and this gap, much like the world’s population, is only getting bigger.

For the most part, obesity comes down to our energy intake surpassing energy expenditure. So why do we indulge in overeating on such a regular basis?

Dr. Brian Wansink, a behavioral scientist at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, identifies the major contributor as  “mindless eating”. The average person makes two hundred food decisions a day; ranging from picking skim milk over full fat milk, to choosing to have mustard, tomato sauce or both on their sausage in bread.

Most of us don’t overeat because we’re hungry, we overeat due to environmental cues subconsciously tempting us to eat more. Our surroundings so often determine what we eat without us even realizing; the way food is described to us, the number of people we dine with, how close the chocolate bowl is to us at work, or even something as small as candlelight are all triggers.

Mindless eating question

Menu 1, right?
By using more emotive language, appeal is not only added to the menu items, but your expectations are also raised. This leaves you thinking that what you are eating is more luxurious, causing you to enjoy the food more even if you received the exact same meal in Menu 2.

This leads me to the fact that we eat with our eyes. The following video of an experiment conducted by Dr. Wansink demonstrates that when our mums always said to us ‘your eyes are too big for your stomach’… she was right!

You’re at a friend’s house and they welcome you with a bowl of irresistible peanut m&m’s while you exchange gossip about Saturday night shenanigans. When food is in plain sight, it’s convenient to grab a handful simply “because it’s there”. This point in time is where we need to be mindful, take personal inventory, and ask ourselves if we weren’t in this environment would we be eating this, let alone this amount? Most of the time the answer is no, yet we can’t control this temptation, as more often than not we don’t take the time to stop and ask ourselves these questions.

Another environmental cue is plate size. Plate size can have an overpowering effect on the amount we consume and can sometimes mean the difference between an extra 150 calories consumed. By simply choosing a smaller plate, research has found that you are likely to eat 30% less. The smaller the plate the fuller it looks. By comparing the same amount of food on two different sized plates, it becomes evident how easily the brain can be tricked into over estimating how much food you desire.

If you’re feeling hungry for more, this interview with Dr. Wansink will leave you satisfied!