Leveraging Food Psychology – and Avoiding Mindless Eating


Do you have a hard time getting your family members to eat leftover cholent on Sunday night? What if simply calling it something else could increase their interest in this leftover fare? How about “Tasty Bean Stew” or “Classic Old-World Goulash”?

Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and a well-known expert in consumer behavior relating to food and nutrition, calls this strategy “menu magic.” He has documented how descriptive words with sensory appeal – such as “succulent” or “herb encrusted” – can influence our appetite and our desire to eat certain foods.

We’ve all seen how restaurants and food merchandisers take full advantage of this principle, and similar ones, to stoke consumers’ appetites. But some of these same ideas, distilled from the work of Wansink and others, can also help to decrease mindless eating. They can help you naturally self-regulate the amount of food you consume and arrive at the balance that is just right for you. In other words, you can remove or mitigate some of the environmental cues that lead you to overeat.

Environmental nutrition scientists such as Wansink study a wide range of factors: how food is packaged, the size and shape of the plate it is served on, the lighting in the room where it is eaten, and even whom we eat with. All of these variables can influence now only what we eat, but also how much.

In his engaging, insightful, and often humorous book Mindless Eating, Wansink calls these factors “drivers of consumption.” He asserts that they insidiously influence our food choices and disrupt our body’s natural satiety mechanism, which would otherwise signal us to stop eating once we are full.

I recommend you pick up a copy of Mindless Eating and read firsthand about Wansink’s research, which affects all of us to some degree. But let me briefly describe a few of the concepts he discusses that I find particularly fascinating:

1. The mindless margin is the margin, or zone, in which we can either slightly overeat or undereat without being aware of it. Many environmental factors can lure us into this mindless zone. For example, as was shown in an experiment, moviegoers who were given large buckets of popcorn ate more of the snack than those who received medium buckets – even though all the popcorn given to both groups was stale! “Give them a lot and they eat a lot,” he writes.

Wansink goes on to note that “in most of our studies, people can eat 20 percent less without noticing it. If they eat 30 percent less they realize it, but 20 percent is still under the radar screen.” It seems this margin is the edge before deprivation starts to become noticed by the body.

This is important to know to help us avoid deprivation, since intentionally depriving ourselves of food – such as when we go on certain diets – is generally not a good thing. The body will typically fight against such a strategy and ultimately sabotage any effort to reduce food intake. For example, a study reported in the International Journal of Eating Disorders found that when participants were deprived of chocolate, their level of craving and overeating increased, especially if they had a history of restraining their own eating.

But if we keep the “deprivation” to under 20 percent, we are unlikely to encounter a rebound effect. The Japanese have a practice they call “hara haci bu,” in which people partake of a meal until they sense they are about 80 percent full. As confirmed in Wansink’s research, eating to this threshold seems to be just enough to trigger our stomach to signal the brain that we are full enough and can stop eating.

Based on this premise, Wansink suggests a strategy for those interested in losing weight: Try eating 20 percent more vegetables and fruits, and 20 percent less pasta and other starchy foods.

2) The “nutritional gatekeeper” is a term that was coined during WWII and popularized by Wansink. It refers to the person in the household who directly or indirectly controls most of what the family eats. This is the person – typically, the wife or mother – who does most of the food shopping and meal preparation.

According to Wansink, it is also the person who is most likely to exercise certain unhealthy, manipulative strategies around food. Here are four common ones:

* Food as a reward. An example is telling your child that if she or he gets an A on a test, the family will go out for ice cream.

* Food as comfort. This would be offering a comfort food such as chocolate pudding to help soothe painful emotions.

* Food as guilt. Many of us baby boomers remember being told to eat everything on our plates because children were starving in Africa. Today’s parents might be more likely to emphasize how hard they work and how expensive food is. Same effect.

* Food as punishment. An example would be telling a family member she can’t talk on the phone or watch a movie until she finishes her vegetables.

How many of these strategies were you subjected to as a kid? Do you use any as a parent? According to Wansink, avoiding such manipulations as a parent will help your kids develop healthier attitudes and habits around food.

The food scientist also recommends that gatekeepers ensure variety through new recipes and ingredients. He says they should also be aware of simple techniques that nutrition professionals use to help people build balanced meals, such as the plate method (see ChooseMyPlate.gov). Another suggestion is providing family members with snacks that are already apportioned in single-serving baggies or containers.

3. Make overeating a hassle, not a habit. One tactic Wansink suggests is keeping tempting unhealthy foods (or those that are more likely to be overeaten or mindlessly eaten) out of sight. He explains: “We eat more of these visible ‘see-foods’ because we think about them more. Every time we see the candy jar we have to decide whether we want a Hershey’s Kiss or whether we don’t. Every time we see it, we have to say no to something that is tasty and tempting.”

Of course, the “see-food” principle can also work to your advantage. Making healthy foods easy to see means you will be more likely to eat them! Make fruit, cut-up veggies, healthy dips, and nutritious protein bars easy to see. Wansink suggests we “migrate” healthy foods to the “front eye-level shelves of the refrigerator.”

Keep in mind that even with healthy foods, we don’t want to mindlessly overeat. Wansink therefore suggests plating food before it is served and then leaving the serving dishes in the kitchen or on the counter, making it more difficult to get seconds. His research suggests that keeping serving bowls at least six feet away gives us time to pause and think about whether we really need to continue eating. If you leave any serving dishes on the table, perhaps just leave the salad and veggie dishes, making those easier to get to if people are still hungry.

Why not try out some of your new environmental nutrition strategies as you mindfully enjoy these delicious and healthy brownies?


Beautiful Black Bean Brownies

I made these vegan, gluten-free black bean brownies for our Shabbos dessert a few weeks ago. I modified the recipe from one posted on minimalistbaker.com. Truly yummy! (Just don’t tell your family what they’re made from!)

1 15-oz. can (about 1 3/4 c.) black beans, well-rinsed and drained

2 large flax eggs (In a small bowl, add 2 T. of ground flaxseed meal and 5 T. of water. Let sit for 5 minutes to thicken. Use to replace 2 eggs.)

3 T. coconut oil, melted (or other oil of choice)

3/4 c. cocoa powder (you can also substitute carob powder)

1/4 tsp sea salt

1 tsp. pure vanilla extract

1 1/2 c. natural sugar

1 1/2 tsp. baking powder

Optional toppings: crushed walnuts, pecans, or chocolate chips


Preheat oven to 350°. Lightly grease a 12-cup standard-size muffin pan. Prepare flax egg by combining flax and water in the bowl of the food processor. Pulse a couple times and then let rest for a few minutes. Add remaining ingredients (except toppings) and puree for about 3 minutes, scraping down sides as needed. If the batter appears too thick, add a tablespoon or two of water and pulse again. It should be slightly less thick than chocolate frosting but nowhere close to runny. Evenly distribute the batter into the muffin tin and smooth the tops with a spoon or your finger. Sprinkle with crushed walnuts, pecans, or chocolate chips, if desired.

Bake for 20-26 minutes or until the tops are dry and the edges start to pull away from the sides. Remove from oven and let cool for 30 minutes before removing from pan. They will be tender, so remove gently with a fork. The insides are meant to be very fudgy, so don’t be concerned if they seem too moist. Store in an airtight container for up to a few days. Refrigerate to keep longer.


Pumpkin Brownies

I adapted this recipe from one found on the Mississippi State University Extension Service website. These brownies made it to the short list of healthy but delectable recipes featured on National Brownie Day, but you can mindfully enjoy them all year round.

1 c. pumpkin puree, canned or cooked

3/4-1 c. natural sugar

2 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. salt

1/4 c. vegetable oil

1 tsp. nutmeg

2 eggs

1 1/4 c. whole-grain flour (or gluten-free flour blend)

1/2 c. walnuts, finely chopped

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. baking powder

1/4 c. milk (dairy or non-dairy)

1/2 tsp. ground ginger

2 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375°. Coat a 9x13-inch baking pan with cooking spray. Combine all ingredients and beat well. Pour into pan. Bake for 30 minutes or until a toothpick inserted comes out clean. Cool and cut into squares.


Lauren Mirkin, CNS, LDN, LCPC, NCC, is a licensed nutritionist and professional counselor. Please contact her for information about her comprehensive integrative nutrition counseling services, mindful eating workshops, and health and nutrition classes. She also provides psychotherapy for those struggling with eating disorders and disordered eating. She can be reached at 443-326-7023 or holisticnutritionhelp@gmail.com or holisticcounselinghelp@gmail.com.


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