Dr Brian Wansink is a behavioural economist who studies people’s behaviour around food. Specifically he is interested in how the environment can be manipulated to support or sabotage weight loss efforts. In an interview for Diabetes in Control at the ADA conference in 2012 he outlined the five areas in which we tend to eat more than we intend.
Party bingeing. This is the “I deserve a break”, “I’m celebrating”, “It’s only this once”, “It would offend the host” types of excuses come into play and we abandon our regular habits and go a bit mad with the calories. Alcohol increases our appetites and loosens our will power. If we had any in the first place. Unusual or attractive party food becomes hyper-alluring, and for some of us the urge to try a little bit of everything, three desserts for instance, makes us terribly glad that we wore an elasticated waistband that day. The party phenomenon can also translate to longer binges such as holiday eating or even more problematic, the CRUISE.
Eating too much at meals is particularly easy to do if you were brought up in a household where you were encouraged to “clear your plate”. Thanks to my mother’s pleading, threats, stories of starving children of you name it, I was 40 years old before I was able to leave anything on my plate. I always had the spectre of my mother behind me at every meal. Things were fine as long as I was able to put food on my own plate, but if someone else handed it to me….down it went.
Some of us don’t feel we can leave a meal unless we are absolutely stuffed. After all, there could be an earthquake, flood, famine, ice-age between lunch and dinner, so you’d better be prepared. Although the advice given to young ladies at Charm School was to always leave the table a little hungry… that is not how many of us do it.
Restaurant behaviour can follow on from the meal stuffing habit. After all, you’ve paid for it! And you are jolly well going to eat it. Things get even worse around buffets. For many of us, buffets are a terrible source of temptation. We have just try a little something from every dish. And when it is an all you can eat buffet….well, there is nothing like a challenge. In any restaurant, no matter how stuffed we may feel, there always seems to be room for a delicious dessert. These are particularly hard to resist if you can actually see them as opposed to just reading about them off of a menu. For most of us, restaurants are a treat, so the party bingeing mentality, “It’s just the once…I’ll go back to eating properly tomorrow” come into play too.
Snacking and grazing are what many of us to between meals. It should be meaningful work, time with those who matter, or physical activity, but no. The most popular activity is probably more eating. Snacking can be brought on by genuine hunger. In this case Dr Wansink’s best advice is to eat a hot protein breakfast at the start of the day to get out of the elevenses habit. For others snacks are freely available in the workplace or in the home. Most of the time these are not vegetables with dips or fruit, nuts and cheese but crisps, Doritos, maltesers, chocolates, sweets, biscuits and cakes. On trains and planes they can include booze as well. Calorific drinks such as hot chocolate and syrup enhanced coffees are popular too.
So when does snacking not count? Well, when you can’t actually remember doing it? Does that make it not count? When you are watching the television, in a cinema, using the computer or even driving it is amazing how dextrous human beings can be. One hand can be employed on mouse skills or on the steering wheel with the conscious brain and eyes engaged on really pretty complex tasks. Meanwhile the non-dominant hand and the subconscious brain are totally absorbed in hand to container to mouth skills just as finely tuned as the finest snooker player can pop the balls into the holes.
Brian says that essentially the first step for anyone is to become aware of any of these habits. You then need to devise strategies that interrupt the unwanted patterns of behaviour. He suggests that people start with one habit and change that first. Starting with what seems easiest and most achievable can give a feeling of mastery that can be worked on. For most things changing the environment around the problem is much more effective than reliance on will-power.