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Where you eat affects what you eat – new study shows

© Sara McCloskey 2014
Did you know that people pile on 18 percent more food if the color of their plate is the same as what they’re eating? A new book published by a Cornell University researcher reveals all the little ways in which we mindlessly eat.

Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, released his latest book “Slim by Design: Everyday Solutions for Mindless Eating” last week. His research shows how different places affect the way we eat. Over the course of four years, Wansink observed how people act in a buffet setting, while picking out groceries and how families share meals in their homes.

His study focuses on mindless eating, eating food without paying attention to what and how much is being consumed. Wansink points to five key “zones” that are the dominant locations where mindless eating takes place – the home, restaurants, workplace, school and grocery store.

“If you shop when you’re hungry, you’re much more motivated to buy convenient, ready to eat foods,” Wansink said. “You’re so hungry that all you can think about is not cooking anything and just getting that instant glucose hit that you’re not going get from sticking your hand in a box of granola and scarfing it down.”

Another key factor to eating mindlessly is the consumer’s mood.

“We are either our own best friend or our own worst enemy when it comes to food,” Wansink said. “Oftentimes, we’re just set up to not eat great. Simply doing anything that increases your mood will shift how much you eat. More importantly it’ll help you eat much more balanced and more healthier mix of foods.”

Ithaca College senior Grace Schroeder has had a complex relationship with food, but by participating in a 12-step food recovery program she has been able to address and recognize some issues she faces. When Schroeder began to pray before her meals, she began to have a more positive mindset.

“I started thanking God for the colorful, beautiful food that was going to fill me up,” Schroeder said. “I found that it led to me being a better friend, daughter, sister and student because I wasn’t obsessed with food and how I looked.”

Becoming more aware of the aspects that influence eating habits takes time, says local nutritionist and nutrition counselor for Ithaca College students Cathy J. Saloff-Coste, MS, RDN, CDN. Planning meals and snacks is one way to help people to have more control over what and how much they eat. Saloff-Coste works with clients to help identify how their food and emotions are connected, emphasizing that nutrition is only one aspect of a healthy lifestyle.

“Going from mindless to mindful does include a planning step,” Saloff-Coste said. “Following a series of small, manageable steps is more likely to lead to long-lasting healthy nutrition patterns. A few months of small changes can lead to enormous sustainable growth.”

The Wansink study also explains that it is difficult to control portions in a buffet style restaurant or dining hall. Schroeder decided to get off the campus meal plan because this environment contributed to disordered eating habits.

“With buffets, being able to serve yourself as many spoonfuls as you wanted, I would put probably 2-3 times more than what the average serving size would have been or if somebody would have been serving me,” Schroeder.

Now, Schroeder makes a point to create grocery lists and plan out meals for the week so she is more aware of what she is consuming.

“When I started being more mindful of what I was eating, my whole life became mindful,” Schroeder said.

Proposing everyday solutions to mindless eating not only helps individuals make changes for their lives, but it can a larger effect on the entire community.

“There’s only a handful of changes we really need to make to really turn things around for ourselves and if we do that, it also turns things around for our neighborhood and our town,” Wansink said.

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