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What Really Determines What We Eat
The Hidden Truth

by Brian Wansink, PhD

A similar experiment was done with Philadelphia bartenders as the subjects. Since bartenders pour a tremendous number of drinks every year, they might be expected to be better at estimating amounts of liquids. To test this out, the bartenders were given either tall, slender highball glasses that held about 10.5 ounces or short, wide tumblers that held 10.5 ounces. They were then asked to pour the amount of liquor they’d normally pour into the glasses for a variety of mixed drinks. The result was that even though these people pour all the time, they fell into the same trap as the teenagers in New Hampshire. Bartenders with less than five years of experience poured about 32% more than they should have (2.2 ounces instead of 1.5) into the short tumblers. Those with at least five years of experience were a little more accurate in their estimates.

If even professional pourers are unaware that they pour more into wide glasses, is there any hope for the ordinary person who would like to limit portion sizes of beverages? Yes, there is: Use tall glasses and get rid of your short wide ones. It’s that simple, and the simpler the solution, the more likely it will work.

Your stomach is unreliable
When a group of people were asked the following question, “When you are eating soup, at what point to do you stop eating?” 81% of them said, “I stop eating when the bowl is empty.” Some of them said they stop when the bowl is half empty. Only 19% of them said they stop when they are full.

Like many people, the people who stopped eating when the bowl was half empty were using a visual cue to determine when they were full (or had eaten enough). But what happens if your bowl never empties?

In a study published in the journal Obesity Research in 2005, 60 adults were offered a free bowl of soup. Half of them got normal, 22-ounce bowls, and half got specially designed, bottomless bowls that automatically refilled themselves as soup was removed. However, the refilling was done so slowly it was imperceptible. Theoretically, a person could eat six quarts of soup without realizing that the bowl was being constantly refilled.

The researchers found that bottomless bowls lead to bottomless appetites. All the participants ate for 20 minutes before the researchers stopped them. In those 20 minutes, the people with the bottomless bowls ate 73% more soup than the people with normal bowls, some of whom had them refilled by hand. However, the people with the bottomless bowls did not think they ate more. When asked how many ounces they thought they ate, they said about 9 ounces. When asked how full they were, they didn’t rate themselves as being fuller than their counterparts with normal bowls.

These results suggest that people use their eyes more than their stomachs to monitor how much they eat and how full they feel. Relying on bodily sensations alone, therefore, may not tell us when we have eaten enough.

Avoiding the traps
Homes and workplaces are filled with hidden eating traps that we unknowingly set on our own. To avoid mindless eating, therefore, we must learn to dismantle those traps.

Studies in which secretaries are provided with daily chocolate suggest that simply placing food farther away helps people eat less of it. In one version of the study, researchers placed 30 chocolates on some secretaries’ desks. Every night after they left, the researchers would count how many chocolates they ate and refill the chocolate dish. Other secretaries in the study were also given 30 chocolates, but the candy was placed 6 feet away from their desks. Again, every night after they had gone, the researchers counted how many chocolates had been eaten and refilled the dish.

What happened was that when the chocolate was sitting right on the desk, the typical person ate about 9 chocolates a day. When the chocolate was placed 6 feet away from the desk, the typical person would eat only 4.5 chocolates per day. We expected people to say, when asked why they ate fewer chocolates than the people who have the chocolate right on the desk, that the little extra work to walk to the chocolate was not worth it for them. But hardly anyone said this. What they said was that having 6 feet between them and the chocolate bowl was enough time for them to pause and ask themselves, “Do I really want that?” When the chocolate was right on the desk, there wasn’t even time to pose that question.

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