A Strategic Guide To Holiday Dining

If Brian Wansink invites you over for a holiday gathering this year, beware! The Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, Wansink makes a career of studying and reporting on our eating habits – the mindless ones that we aren’t even aware of.

His Food and Brand Lab, started in 1996, is a food psychology lab, and rather than test tubes, petri dishes, and microscopes it’s outfitted with mock living rooms, kitchens and restaurants, and is equipped with one-way mirrors, camouflage cameras and tables with hidden scales under the plates.

Author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, he has conducted thousands of experiments on unsuspecting subjects to probe the psyche of consumption. What he’s found is that our eating has less to do with hunger and everything to do with the environmental cues that surround us – from our family and friends to our plate size, glass shape, where the food is placed not to mention sights, sounds, smells and even our expectations.

With the holiday season and its parade of food-centric festivities upon us, Wansink seemed the perfect expert to advise on ways to minimize the dining damage while indulging in these seasonal feasts.

One of the best strategies is your attire. He suggests you wear your “best belt” or snug fitting outfit. Americans are notorious for not listening to our body’s internal clues. Ask the French how they know when to stop eating and they’ll answer when they no longer feel hungry. When Wansink asked Americans this question they responded when they ran out of their beverage, their plate was empty, or when the television show they were watching was over.

“Stopping when you’re full is probably one of the hardest things to do at the Thanksgiving table when everyone else is helping themselves to seconds,” warns Wansink. Let your clothes sound the alarm.

Next, focus on the special dishes, not the stuff you can have every day. His research shows that most of us consume approximately nine percent of our holiday calories before we ever get to the table. “Avoid anything that doesn’t require a knife and a fork to eat,” he advises. So skip the nuts, the chips and other snacks scattered around, and save yourself for Aunt Mildred’s to-die-for-sweet potato casserole.

If faced with the temptations of a holiday buffet (or any buffet, for that matter), Wansink recommends you follow the two-items-only rule. Place no more than two items on the plate at a time. You can go back for more selections, but again, no more than two items a trip. This strategy is based on “sensory specific satiety” which means the first bite of something is the best, the second a little less so, the third even less and so on until our taste buds go numb. But add a new dish, and the taste buds get revved up and go wild all over again. That’s why the greater the variety, the more we overeat. With the two-items-only rule, “The lack of variety will slow you down,” he says. Anything that slows you down, gives you time to reconsider another trip to the buffet line.

Feeling pressured by family and friends to partake of their treasured recipes? Then help yourself to a teaspoon-sized serving, Wansink proposes. Go back for teaspoon-sized seconds and thirds. The next day they won’t remember how much you ate, only that you went back for seconds and thirds.

Finally, if despite your best efforts you end up with a few unwanted holiday pounds that you need to shed as the New Year rolls pass, gift yourself a copy of Wansink’s Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. It’s a fascinating and fun read about our food motivations, and it is sure to surprise you. In addition, he offers a host of strategies to alter behavior and help eliminate “the mindless margin” – those 100 to 200 calories each day that you’ll never miss, but will be reflected in weight loss over the long run. “The best diet,” he says, “is the one you don’t know you’re on.”

Author’s Note: This appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of Life is Good Magazine.