Frank Bruni, The New York Times restaurant critic for the past five years, is also coming out with a brave memoir,
in August. The book discloses his lifelong battle with bulimia, in a study of "the riddle of overeating [which] is a profound one," as Bruni says. (For a recent blog I wrote on that book, see my blog at Psychology Today.)
Each of these books on obesity approaches the epidemic in a different way. The Fat Studies Reader, for instance, defends fat culture (the activists behind the book like the word "fat" for its political directness). One of the authors, professor Kathleen LeBesco, writes, "Fat people are widely represented in popular culture...as revolting. But if we think about ‘revolting' in a different way . . . in terms of overthrowing authority, rebelling, protesting...then corpulence carries a whole new weight as a subversive cultural practice." She argues that this "epidemic" is really a time for reinvigorating our values and rethinking our unnoticed prejudices.
Still, a lot of us eat more than we'd like. The question of the hour is why. Brian Wansink's Mindless Eating is a recent book on the topic that catches my eye. Wansink, who runs Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, essentially brings common sense to life with statistics. He conducts quirky lab studies to figure out why we overeat-and I'll list some of his studies here in search for your feedback. What causes you to overeat, if you do? What helps you eat well, if you do?
Quirky Studies That Prove Things You Might Already Know
1. We overeat when sad. In one study, 30 people were given buckets of popcorn and watched either a sad or a happy movie. Those people watching the sad movie ate 28% more popcorn than those watching the happy movie.
2. We overeat when the servings are big. Chicago moviegoers were given either larger- or smaller- sized popcorn boxes before entering a movie. Those who got the larger containers ate 61% more than those with smaller containers. They ate more than the others even when their popcorn was 10-days stale. (In addition, people sitting next to someone of the opposite sex ate more than those who didn't.)
3. A big plate is dangerous. In one study, students at a Super Bowl party were given either large or small plates at a buffet. Those with the large plates ate 56% (avg. 142 calories) more than those who used smaller plates. A person will eat an average of 92% of any food she serves herself.
4. We misjudge drinking glasses. At a weight-loss camp, children and adults were given short, wide drinking glasses or tall, narrow ones. Those with the short glasses consumed about 30% more juice than those with the tall glasses, but they thought they were drinking less than the others were. When bartenders with extensive experience pouring drinks were given the same test, some (though fewer) made the same mistake. Getting to know your containers helps you learn proper portioning.
5. We assume whatever's served is a proper serving. In this study, 54 people eating soup were split into two groups. In one group, participants ate from a normal serving bowl; in the other, the serving bowl slowly and imperceptibly refilled itself during the course of the meal. In the magically-refilling-bowl group, people ate 73% more but didn't claim to have eaten more, and they didn't claim to feel any fuller than the other group.
6. We cook more when we buy big packaging. People were asked to cook a meal. In one group, participants were given big boxes of spaghetti, half filled. In the other group, participants were given small boxes. (Each had the same total volume of spaghetti; only the box size differed). The group pulling their spaghetti from big boxes cooked 25% more spaghetti than the other group did.
7. Olive oil fills you up better than butter. In this study, people sitting down for restaurant dinners were observed eating bread with either butter or olive oil. The olive-oil users used 26% more fat on their bread than the butter-users did, but they ate 23% less bread and fat related calories over the course of a meal. Here's one more detail on fat: Low-fat labels lead people to eat about 20% more total calories.
8. Visible food gets eaten. In one study, secretaries ate 2x as many chocolate kisses when the chocolates were placed on their desk rather than 6 feet away. When the candies were placed inside their own drawer, they ate 25% fewer. The closer and more visible your food, the more likely you are to eat it.
Of course these lab studies don't come close to explaining the obesity epidemic in America. They offer one interesting statistical piece of the puzzle. The different books coming out on the topic each offer a different lens through which to understand American eating habits. Do you have your own take on the issue? Have you read insightful books about our diets and bodies?
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