Why We’re So Damned Fat

Cass Sunstein and Richard Thale review Brian Wansink’s new book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, for The New Republic.

While acknowledging changes in the economy that allow people to afford a wide variety of tasty food while exerting less physical labor, issues of self-control, and the usual culprits, Wansink argues that the major problem is human psychology.

“In the thousands of debriefings we’ve done for hundreds of studies, nearly every person who was tricked’ by the words on a label, the size of a package, the lighting in a room, or the size of a latte said, I wasn’t influenced by that.'” Wansink calculates that people make more than two hundred food-related decisions every day; most of those decisions are made quickly and intuitively, without any kind of deliberate assessment. As he puts it, “stomachs can’t count,” and “it’s simply not in our nature to pause after every bite and contemplate whether we’re full.”

We take cues from package sizes, apparently. Given a free bucket of popcorn, people will tend to eat it even if it is so stale that it tastes like Styrofoam peanuts. Those given a larger bucket will eat 53 percent more on average. Given a large bowl of tomato soap and told to eat as much as they want, not realizing that the bowl is being automatically refilled, some will continue to eat until the experiment is called off. The larger the container of M&Ms and ice cream, the more people will eat.

The reason is simple: packages “suggest a consumption norm–what it is appropriate or normal to use or eat.” In fact, most people do not stop eating when they are no longer hungry. They look to whether their glasses or plates are empty.

Labeling matters, too. Given identical nutrition bars, one prominently featuring the word “soy” and other emphasizing “protein,” people will hate the former and love the latter.

Wansink’s lesson is that “we taste what we expect we’ll taste.” To support this claim, he notes that in the dark, people are willing to believe that chocolate yogurt is strawberry yogurt–and apparently to enjoy it just as if it were strawberry. A military chef found himself with a group of sailors who were tired of eating lemon Jell-O and insisted on getting their favorite flavor, which was cherry. Not having any such Jell-O, he colored lemon-flavored Jell-O red–and the sailors ate it happily. Indeed, even many wine connoisseurs cannot tell the difference between red and white wine when the wine is served in dark, opaque stemware.

This is interesting stuff, which undermines the notion that people always make informed choices. Sometimes, we operate on auto-pilot.

It strikes me as inconceivable that I would bite into red-colored lemon Jell-O and think it was cherry. Certainly, I can’t imagine mistaking a Riesling for a pinot noir or vice versa, regardless of the glass. Clearly, though, people must do that. On the other hand, I know that I’ll mindlessly sip a beverage or keep popping M&Ms, peanuts, popcorn, and the like if it’s in front of me.

This discussion puts me in mind, too, of an old column by Cathy Seipp, who passed away yesterday. It begins with the classic line, “I believe your right to overeat ends where my airplane seat begins.”

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. I weigh myself every day as part of a routine (just before I shower). I look to be in a 10 pound range. If I am, I don’t change. If I am low, I am more likely to get an after dinner dessert. If I am high, I am more likely to get myself a between meal snack. Result, I have only been out of this ten pound range once in the last two years (after a week long cruise where I wasn’t weighing myself daily).

    Its like finance. Spend less than you earn and you will keep yourself out of financial troubles. If you make a million a year and are spending more than a million, it will catch up to you. If you are making 25K a year and spend less than 25K, you will keep your head above water. Likewise with food, eat as much as your body uses up. If you eat more, cut back. If you eat less, have a second helping. It really isn’t rocket science, but it does take a bit of self discipline.

    As far as taste, I remember a blind taste test of beers we conducted in college using 6 brands we happened to have around the apartment. The only beer that was consistently ranked was the generic beer at #6. All the rest were all over the place and no one put their favorite beer at the top. Before you pat yourself on the back to much about your discriminating palate for wine, try doing a blind taste test. Maybe you will pick each wine, but I bet you are surprised. How surprised (e.g. Merlot for Chardonnay) I’m not sure, but I bet your taste rankings wouldn’t match your pre-test rankings based solely on the unopened bottle.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I bet your taste rankings wouldn’t match your pre-test rankings based solely on the unopened bottle.

    I’ll have to give it a whirl sometime. Still, I often like fairly inexpensive pinor noirs (they’re hard to find these days, as demand is high) and find very expensive ones dreadful (or not tasting like a pinot). Often, a change in vintage for a wine I expect to like makes a world of difference.

    Now, I doubt whether I’d consistently differentiate a pinot from a shiraz, since the range of both is fairly wide, but I think I’d be fairly consistent in a bimodal “like” versus “don’t like” system.

  3. vnjagvet says:

    YAJ has the weight control thing well thought out. The body is as good a computer as there is. If more calories go in than go out, an increase in weight is sure to follow. Fat, lean, carbs, non-carbs, veggies, meat — it matters not. Calories are calories.

  4. hln says:

    I think a lot of it is how we, as a culture, devalue meals, too. Meals take time and thought to prepare, and there are valuable minutes/hours “wasted” at the breakfast, lunch, and dinner table. I’m guilty of taking lunch while working at the computer and then forgetting several hours later what I actually ate (and how much).


  5. spacemonkey says:

    Mmmmm tomato soap.
    It stains as it cleans.
    It cleans as it stains.

  6. spencer says:

    It took me years and years to get over my mother’s instructions to clean my plate and leave food on my plate without feeling guilty.

  7. C.Wagener says:

    Armed with a life science education that peaked with a 100 level botany class, here’s my theory. While the stomach can’t count calaries, the brain can do a reasonable job of guessing unless you try to fake it out.

    A person never having artificial sweetners will associate sweetness with calories and becomes sated. If instead you consume no calorie sweeetners, the brain is tricked perhaps a few times but learns that sweetness may or may not contain calories. Consequently, the sated feeling goes away for both real and artificial sweetners.

    If you become dehydrated and guzzle a glass or two of water in front of your kitchen sink, your brain quickly tells you everything’s fine, put the glass down. The thing is, the water hasn’t had time to enter your blood stream or cells. Your still dehydrated, but your brain says you’ve done what you needed to do and you soon won’t be. I think that tends to happen the same way with food. It’s not so much the volume of what’s in your stomach, but the calories your brain thinks are there.

    Does this sound valid to anyone?

  8. Bandit says:

    I’m with Spencer and I’m not over it – I eat food all the time so it doesn’t go to waste

  9. James Joyner says:

    My problem is the “but it costs only 10% more for twice as large a portion” conundrum.