Our environment is more influential than our willpower
We have an education; we know exactly what we need to do, but its not happening. We know we should be eating fewer chips and more fruits and vegetables, but we eat the chips anyway. When it comes to winning our own hunger game, eating when we’re hungry and stopping when we are full, the odds are not in our favor. We are rigged to fail by our environment. We have weak willpower but there IS something we CAN do about it. It is far easier to change our environment than it is to change our minds. We can make changes that don’t require willpower at all. Our brains our hijacked, so we will eat even if we aren’t hungry, even if the food is bad if all the external cues direct us to. We believe our eyes, not our stomachs, When we rely on our eyes and not our stomachs, we rely on external cues to tell us we’re done eating, i.e. an empty bowl. Most people think we overeat because we are really hungry, or the food is really good, but that is wrong.
Brian has done multiple studies to show how our external cues influence our eating habits.
In the popcorn study, people were fed dinner beforehand, then went to the movies and were given free bags of popcorn. Some were given larger bags and some were given smaller bags. But all of the popcorn was 5-day-old stale popcorn. Everybody still ate the popcorn, even though it was horrible. They would eat some, put it down, then pick it back up and eat some more throughout the movie. The people with the larger bags ate 51% more than the people with the smaller bags. They didn’t eat because they were hungry; they ate because all the cues around them were telling them to. The most influential cue to tell us we are done eating? An empty bowl, plate, or package. We make some 200 decisions a day with food, our brains get decision fatigue, so we resort to the clean plate notion.
In the Bottomless soup study, people were given soup bowls that automatically refilled, but at such a slow rate that it was unnoticeable, and people still believed they were making progress. They also sat at the table with other people who didn’t have bottomless soup bowl so they could see a perceived end. Those with the bottomless bowls ate 73% more than those with regular soup bowls, that is a quart more of soup! When asked how many calories they consumed they estimated the same as the normal bowl eaters, an average of 127 calories, when in reality they ate 268 calories. Basically, our stomachs suck at math.
We eat more when we have larger containers of things. A larger bag of pasta, we make more of it, a larger jar of spaghetti sauce, we make more of it, on average 23% more. When we make more we serve ourselves more, we eat more. In the M&M study, those given a 1/2-pound bag of M&M’s ate 71 M&M’s, while those given a 1-pound bag ate 137 M&M’s. We look for clues and signs in our environment to tell us how much to use (size of package) as a baseline for amount in comparison. If you serve yourself something you will eat 92% of what you serve. If you over serve yourself, you will over eat. If you increase the size of your plate from 10 and a half inches to 12 and a half inches, the typical person serves themselves 30% more, roughly 180 calories more. 180 calories once a day of a year is 18 pounds of weight gained.
In the pudding study, conference attendees were broken up into 3 groups, one group went straight to lunch, one group were told they were going for some “exercise” and went for a walk with trainer who told them how far they went, while the 3rd group were told they were going on a nature walk and were given a biologist who pointed out birds and plants. Both walking groups went for the same exact walk, same distance, same time. When they came back for lunch the group who were told they were exercising took less salad and more chocolate pudding for lunch, 35% more pudding. This has to do with a suffering component of exercise. If we believe we have suffered, we reward ourselves consciously or unconsciously with food we would have otherwise not eaten.
Does this mean we are doomed to over eat? Do we need to forgo our Costco memberships?
No, just as we can mindlessly overeat, we can mindlessly eat better. The trick is to rig our environments so they support healthier eating, and use our mindlessness for good. It is much easier to put a bowl of fruit on our kitchen counter than to think to ourselves everyday “I should really eat more fruit”. Below are a few things that can be done to set your environment up for your healthy success, to eat healthy mindlessly.
-Find exercise you LOVE, so you don’t believe you are suffering when you do it. Play and have fun while you sweat!
-Maintain a food log/diary for accountability. When you’re hungry though you know you shouldn’t be, you can read your food log to re-affirm you couldn’t be biologically hungry. Ask yourself, what else is going on? Is something going on emotionally?
-Pre-portion and plate your meals, when we do this we eat about 14% less, create healthy boundaries and are more satisfied.
-Serve your food on a plate a different color than your food and you automatically serve yourself 18% less.
-Choose plates that are 9-10 inches wide.
-Serve yourself salad and vegetables before the main dish.
-Keep your kitchen clean and organized. Eating in a cluttered kitchen we eat 44% more snacks.
-Keep all snack foods in 1 inconvenient cupboard.
-The only foods on your counter should be a fruit bowl and vegetables, If it’s there, you will eat it. If you have 1 box of cereal open anywhere in sight, on average you’ll weigh 21 more pounds than your neighbor who doesn’t.
-Never eat directly out of a package, put your meals in a separate container.
-Re-package jumbo sized things into smaller containers.
-If you buy a large amount of something in bulk, put 2-3 in your pantry and leave the rest in the garage/basement.
-Put unhealthy foods further back in the cupboard, we are 3 times more likely to eat the first thing we see.
-Make the most visible foods those you want to eat a lot of. Pre-chopped fruits and vegetables, meal plan meals in clear containers front and center in your fridge. Read my Blog post on Batch Cooking, to set you up with healthy meals for the week.
-Chew mint gum while grocery shopping to cut impulse spending
-Visit the produce aisles first at the grocery store, and have a list before you go in.
-When at a restaurant sit in a well lit area away from the bar and kitchen.
-When visiting a buffet, circle the options before picking up a plate to serve yourself, and then sit far away from the buffet.
-My favorite: Want to get your kid to eat broccoli? Don’t call it broccoli. Call it a dinosaur tree. Better yet, get one of their friends to call it a dinosaur tree. Pre-K peer pressure works. Things with better names apparently just taste better to us. Words matter, big time: tack on the phrase “home-style” to anything, and it just tastes more delicious.
-Chew your food more! Read this Blog post to learn why.
Try out a few of these things in your environment and give it a few weeks. Make it easy on yourself so you make healthy decisions on autopilot, without thinking. The best diet is the diet you don’t know you’re on.