How many among us have dipped into the Maltesers too many times while riveted to our favourite TV show? Or reached for biscuit tin while reading the paper?
Many of us snack to our hearts content blissfully unaware of how much we have actually consumed over the course of a day, unknowingly piling on the pounds.
Dr Brian Wansink, food psychologist at Cornell University, has spent the last 25 years researching the very topic of the unthinking ways in which we eat, and in his book Mindless Eating, claims that we put on weight not because of what we eat but because of the ways in which we eat.
If we all became ‘conscious’ eaters, he claims, we can effectively control weight gain.
“We overeat not because of hunger but because of so many external factors that influence how much we eat, which we are unaware of”, he says.
“We may be chatting to our friends at a dinner party while eating away or pick up a particularly attractive chocolate bar which we don’t really want. We make around 200 decisions about food each day and we don’t really know that we are doing it.
I want to show people that our tastes are not formed by chance. Once we know that, we can make small changes and actually enjoy food more. It occurred to me that if we could be in control of our food decisions, we could eat a little less and eat a little healthier.”
So how do we get to grips with ourselves?
In the book he identifies five different types of eaters: the Meal Stuffer is someone that eats primarily during meal times but to excess; the Snack Grazer who reaches for food out of habit throughout the day; the Party Binger who overdoes it in a social setting; the Restaurant Indulger who eats out a lot and the Desktop Diner who eats while doing another task.
“It depends what camp you fall in,” Wansink says.
“When you have identified that, you can then control your environment so we mindlessly eat less. So a good tip for a Meal Stuffer would be to use a smaller plate – it should be less than 10 inches but more than 9.25 inches.
You’ll serve yourself 22 per cent less but won’t realise it. The Restaurant Indulger, for example, should have a rule that they can only order two additional items with their meal – be it a drink and dessert. It’s about giving ourselves natural governors – natural stopping points.”
Wansink’s book is full of handy tips such as these.
His breakthrough argument is the fact that if we eat too little or too much, we know about it – we feel it physically.
But crucially there is an amount – what he calls the ‘mindless margin’ – of between 200-300kcals a day that we are unaware of consuming.
Over the course of a year, this could amount to a weight gain of 10 pounds. His weight-loss theory revolves around squeezing the mindless margin.