Marketing to Mindless Eaters

Appeared in Brownsville Herarld and Valley Morning Star on April 28, 2013

By Lisa Mitchell-Bennett

When you ask a room full of people why so many of us overeat, their answers are usually similar:  Stress, availability of junk food, hunger, emotions, or just that it tastes good. What food marketing folks have known for years, however, is that it is less complex than that.  According to Dr. Brian Wansink, Director of Cornell University’s Researchers Food and Brand Lab, “We are a nation of mindless eaters. If there’s nothing to stop us from grabbing something to eat, we keep doing it until something tells us to stop.” (April 2013 edition of Nutrition Action). We simply eat because we can; because it is there.

Perhaps it’s something in our genetic make-up that keeps us from starving when food is scarce, or perhaps it’s just that we weren’t designed to handle the abundance of choices and foods that surround us. Whatever the cause, there it is. We are mindless in our eating and the industry that makes money off of our over-indulgence knows this very well.

The famous “soup study” illustrates this reality. Study participants were served bowls of soup. Half of the participants were served soup in a normal bowl, which provided an accurate food portion, and half were served soup in a self–refilling bowl (unbeknownst to the participant). The self–refilling bowls slowly refilled as the soup was consumed. Participants who were unknowingly eating from self–refilling bowls ate 73% more soup that those eating from normal bowls. However, they didn’t believe they consumed more nor did they perceive themselves as more full than those eating only one bowl (Wansink, Brian, James E. Painter, and Jill North (2005), “Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues of Portion Size May Influence Intake,” Obesity Research, 13:1(January), 93–100.).

Instead of portions, we have become hyper-focused on certain aspects of our food products including whether it is “low fat”  “low-carb” or “organic” for example I know people who are trying to lose or maintain their weight who virtually become self-educated nutritionists, reading and studying about every detail of the chemistry of food, hyper-focusing on cutting out certain ingredients. Certainly it’s important to know what goes into our mouths, but in reality, the bigger issue with weight gain in this society is how much food we consume.

The size of the package, the amount of food pictured on the outside of the package, the size of plate, bowl and spoon, the height versus the width of packaging  and even what the size is called  have all been proven to greatly influence how much we eat (and drink).  Did you know that people tend to order “medium” more often but are still consuming more than a proper serving size.?

There are some tricks commonly used by the food marketing and packaging industry that can help us realize how we are being fooled by size. For example, when a package of crackers shows a picture on the cover of just a few crackers, people tend to consider less crackers as a portion. If the picture on the box shows a lot of crackers, people will tend to eat more of them, perhaps subconsciously thinking the picture is a reasonable serving.

Another issue is the “healthy” labels foods now carry. For example, when people are given foods labeled “organic” they guess that their calorie content is 20 percent lower, which of course is not true. Just because something is organic doesn’t mean it has less calories.

Wansink offers some tips to help us overcome our human tendency to be fooled by these marketing tricks and our own ability to eat without using our brain (April 2013 edition of Nutrition Action).

  1. You don’t have to avoid buying large packages. Instead just immediately divide the big packages into smaller bags and hide them where they aren’t visible all the time. Leaving unhealthy snacks visible is providing constant cues to eat.
  2. Studies have shown that the first food you see you will eat more of, kind of like a trigger. Set the healthy food out on the table first, and serve it on the plates before unhealthier food.
  3. Be aware that humans see tall as bigger than wide. Studies have shown that when sizes of say, movie popcorn containers are increased three-dimensionally people don’t notice. But if the container is taller they see it as bigger.
  4. Try to eat in a quieter, more relaxed setting. People who eat more slowly in a more relaxed environment eat less calories. Stay away from bright lights, loud music and of course watching a screen while eating.
  5. Keep food off your desk at work. Even if the bowl of chocolates is just a few feet away having to get up and get it will reduce the amount you consume.
  6. Keep the serving dish off the table. Serve the plates and remove the serving dish. People serve themselves up to 29% more when the dish is on the table, versus the counter.
  7. Make healthy foods more visible by cutting up fruit and veggies in a big bowl or front and center in the fridge.
  8. Slow down. People consume more calories when they eat quickly.
  9. Watch healthy labels or “healthy restaurant” brands. People eat more when it is labeled healthy or they think the restaurant is “healthy”.

Just recognizing our human tendency to tune out when we eat can help us eat less calories and actually enjoy our food more, because Tu Salud ¡Si Cuenta! (Your Health Matters!).