How your environment makes you overeat, how men and women are different with food, and how to get your bartender to give you more alcohol

Posted on January 30, 2012

(Last Updated On: October 1, 2018)

-Update 10/1/2018: The author of Mindless Eating has engaged in some terrible research practices. Please read this.

I recently read Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think and thought I would post my notes. I highlighted various quotes and added commentary.

I’ve posted an interview with Brian Wansink (the author) before: “How external cues make us overeat.”

“This book is not about dietary extremism – just the opposite. It’s about reengineering your environment so that you can eat what you want without guilt and without gaining weight. It’s about reengineering your food life so it is enjoyable and mindful.”

Wansink’s approach to food is unbelievably refreshing. Rather than spew phrases like

“Just eat right,”

“Your carbs should never be bigger than your fist!”

“Do a juice fast til your pale,”

“High fructose corn syrup causes diabetes, cancer, and global warming”

type crap, he proposes a method of enjoying what you eat but hopefully still losing weight in the process. This is the only way “diets” work.

“As we eat we unknowingly – mindlessly – look for cues that it’s time to stop. If there’s nothing left on the table, that’s a cue it’s time to stop.”

This is the overrriding theme. Many, many factors affect how much you eat. How full you feel is only one, and a small factor at that.

People kept eating 5 day old stale popcorn simply because it was next to them:

I’ve had a few dates where I’ve noticed the girl will keep eating as long as there is food in front of her (or me). Many have even said to me, “Ok, please get this away from me. As long as it’s here I’m going to eat it.”

Funnily enough though, if you ask people if having food left in front of them affects how much they eat they will say, “Oh I bet it influences others, but not me.” These are the same people found to eat 5 day old, styrofoam like popcorn. Simply because it was there.

The concept of anchoring:

This is something I was unaware of. Grocery stores and the like will manipulate the prices of food products in order to get you to buy more. For example, if you saw a deal stating “1 for $1” for apples in one grocery store and another store you saw “3 for $3,” you would, unknowingly of course, be more likely to buy the 3 for $3 “deal” thinking you were getting a better deal. Obviously, you’re not getting a better deal, but, you are increasing the store’s profits.

“That’s why it’s easier to change our environment than our mind.”

This is where I clash a bit with Wansink’s philosophy. Wansink is huge on changing your environment in order to lose weight. He isn’t a huge fan of direct calorie counting but prefers attempting to limit calories indirectly.

I’m not sure how pragmatic this is. I get having smaller bowls instead of  bigger ones in your cabinet. However, is it really that easy to change things like how the grocery store presents food to you? I think a combination sounds best.

“If we consciously deny ourselves something again and again, we’re likely to end up craving it more and more.”

Ahh, yes! This is why, until my eye balls bleed, I preach to stop being so concerned with the types of foods you eat. Forcefully denying yourself certain foods only leads to you ravenously eating those foods at a later date. A better approach is figure out how to keep those foods in your eating system on a regular basis, and still lose weight. Remember, losing weight and changing your body is meant to improve your life. If you are having nightmares of chasing M&Ms, you are doing something wrong.

“Most of us simply do not have the mental fortitude to stare at a plate of cookies on the table and say, “I’m not going to eat a cookie.””

This ties in well with my views on portion control. Rather than bake two dozen cookies and say, “Oh, I’ll only have one or two a day,” it’s better to stop lying to yourself and not make the cookies at all.

“Exercise is good, but for most people it’s easier to give up a candy bar than to walk a couple miles.”

People look at me like I’m insane when I tell them how poor exercise is for pure fat loss, but this couldn’t be more true. Most people simply cannot, and will not, work out long enough or hard enough for exercise to have a meaningful impact on their weight. And, ironically enough, the people who need to lose the most weight are capable of burning the least amount of calories. They just aren’t in good enough shape to burn many calories yet. Exercise is great for nearly everything…but without changing how you eat you’re unlikely to achieve your weight-loss goals.

Wansink proposes a verrry slow weight-loss method. 10 pounds in 10 months? I don’t know. I have people who freak out if they don’t lose a pound a week, every week. I think a “diet” where someone may lose a pound the first month is a diet unlikely to be stuck to.

Wansink proposes a calorie deficit of 100 or 200 a day so you don’t notice you’re eating less, which keeps you from feeling like you’re starving. I haven’t read the research on this, but I have had plenty of people reduce their intake by upwards of 500 and are fine. A common thing for new people to say to me is “Yeah I’m eating so much less but I’m not hungry.” I’m pretty meticulous about this too. Especially in the beginning. I tell people if they are hungry on a regular basis they are doing something wrong. (Likely eating too little.)

Inmates with a 6 month sentence gained on average 20-25 lbs. They attributed their weight gain to their baggy jumpsuits because they couldn’t use how their clothing fit as a barometer for how their weight was doing. 

Volume of food versus the calories contained in food:

Wansink goes into some detail on how often we eat based on how much it looks like we’re eating, as opposed to how many calories are in that food. Think of a giant plate versus a regular size plate. There’s a good chance you fill each plate full of food and you’ll feel the same amount of satiety after each plate. Despite the fact one plate clearly has a lot more food on it. This is because you are using the cue of “My plate is clean” to dictate how hungry you are.

This is another reason why almonds are a shitty fat loss food: They have very little volume but a lot of calories.

People are horrible at estimating how much they eat:

I’ve written about this before, but it’s worth mentioning again. Wansink quotes some numbers to the tune of your average person understimates how much they eat by 20%. Obese people can underestimate by up to 50%. The bigger you are the greater you underestimate. I see this all the time with clients. Get them to track their calories for even just a day or two and they invariably come back and say “Holy crap, I had no idea I was eating that much.”

Horizontal-vertical illusion:

This was pretty cool. In short, we underestimate how much liquid is in a wide glass versus a tall glass. That is, you’re likely to drink more soda if you drink from a wide glass than a tall glass. A tip here: If you have the option, tell the bartender you want a wide glass. They are likely to give you around 30% more alcohol when pouring in a wide glass compared to a tall glass. This may have been the most important thing I found in this book. Kidding. (Totally not.)

How much work is involved in eating the food dictates how much you will eat:

Wansink quotes some studies showing the further away a bowl of candy is from a secretary, the less he/she will eat of that candy. He even quotes one study stating that having to open the lid of an ice cream container makes people eat 30% less than if the lid is already open. (HOLY HELL, how can we be this lazy? Stuff like this makes me lose my faith in humanity sometimes.)

This also applies to the amount of work involved in preparing the food. I will write extensively on this in the future but to be succinct for now, not only is food you cook typically healthier than food microwaved, but because you cooking your food involves more work than microwaving your food, you are likely to feel more full cooking than microwaving, subsequently eating less.

Eating with other people makes you eat more:

I don’t think this is surprising anyone. However, how this happens and the amount of extra food you eat with other people around sure surprised me (see the book).

But, are you going to change your friends and family because of how they eat? For example, Wansink proposes things like be the last person to start eating, pace yourself with the slowest eater at the table, etc. I think I’d rather take advantage of the fact that I know if I’m going out to eat with someone tonight I’m likely to eat 35% more than I normally would (from the book). Therefore, I’ll just make sure I eat 35% less throughout the day. If I’m out with some friends I want to enjoy my time with them, focus on them and our conversations, etc. I don’t want to focus on figuring out who is eating the slowest and trying to eat at their speed, all while making sure I’m as entertaining as can be.

However, either way is better than the disillusionment most people give themselves of “I’ll just drink a bunch of water before I go out to eat with all my friends.” Or, “I just have to try harder to eat less than I normally would.” And finally, “I’ll just bring my tupperware of chicken and rice and eat that.” TUPPERWARE GUY I HATE YOU.

Men and women are different:

A study was done examining based on how much popcorn a guy ate, how “manly” did men and women think of him. The more a guy eats on a date, the more manly, stronger and aggressive other guys think he is. However, the women in the study couldn’t care less how much a guy eats on a date in determining how manly or strong he is. In breaking news: Men don’t know anything about women.


I’m going to have to pay attention to this the next time I see a Cinnabon. Wansink mentions Cinnabon is nearly always placed next to stores or areas that don’t sell food or don’t generate a smell. This way when you walk by you get a very strong whiff of Cinnabon and of course, next thing you know your 12 deep in cinnamon rolls.


Comfort foods

Potato chips is at the top of the list.

 “People are almost twice as likely to eat a comfort food when happy compared to when sad”


A big reason for comfort foods is not the taste of the food, it is the association the person has with the food. Homemade meatloaf does more than taste good. It reminds you of your mom cooking for you in the kitchen and you hanging out with your family.


“If you’re overweight, your child has a 75% chance of growing up to be overweight too.”

WOW. I didn’t think parents had this much influence on a child’s weight. Yet another reason why parents should stop blaming video games on why their kid is overweight and start blaming themselves.


Low fat snacks:

In a study where people were either given a “Low fat” granola bar or a “Regular” granola bar, people who ate the low fat bar ate an average of 20% more calories.

People will use any excuse to ignore how many CALORIES they are eating. To such a degree that if you label something low fat they’ll use that as an excuse to eat more than they normally would.

Low fat, low carb, high protein, radioactive, whatever the hell it is labeled doesn’t matter. HOW MANY CALORIES ARE YOU EATING?!?!?


Eating right versus eating better:

I thought this was a great distinction made. Wansink mentions how we’re often told to eat “right,” but eating right can be a “daunting” task. It’s too absolute…It’s too hard. But eating “better?” Well, we can do that. In fact, you can do that immediately. One less coke a day? Boom. Eating better. Swapping everything you eat for chicken, rice and salad 3 times a day? Miserable, and not going to happen.

I want to end this with a note on willpower. Whenever you talk to someone who is having a hard time losing weight, or wants to lose weight, they always say things like “Ehh I just need to try harder.” Look at all the research being done to get you to eat more:

-Menus (The wording, the language (english or french) as well as the style, where the price is put, the order of dishes, how many words are used to describe each dish, the color, the list goes on)

-Lighting (Soft lights versus bright lights)

-Smell (See Cinnabon above)

-How the server greets you

-Plate placement


-Kind of television show on

-Food placement

-Size of plates

-Whether there is a lid on the food container or not

-How far away food is placed from you

-The shape of the container your food/drink is put in

-The tablecloth

-What foods align best with your personality (This is crazy / scary. Check out the book for more details.)

-What item your food is served on (china, napkin, plastic/glass/paper plate, etc.)

-What type of wine is offered to you (If you drink “California” wine you are likely to eat more during your meal than if you have “North Dakota.” Even when the two wines are actually the same wine. You are also likely to say your food was better with Californian. If you’re a restaurant, a place concerned with how much consumers like your food, which wine are you going to serve?)

Do you honestly believe your willpower is enough to overcome all the above?!?!? It’s not. (For those of you who are saying, “Yeah, but I’m different.” Sorry, mom and grandma were wrong. You are not a unique little snowflake.)

While I’m not sure I fully agree with some of Wansink’s modifications (he’s not a fan of calorie counting for example), Mindless Eating is an absolutely fantastic book. A lot of the book really blew my mind. It is by far one of the best diet books I’ve ever read. It’s so much more than a diet book too. There’s even information on what men are likely to eat on a first date compared to what women will eat, and why there are differences.

Pick the book up here: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think

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