Nutritionist-author puts spotlight on what, and how, Americans eat

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Nutritionist-author puts spotlight on what, and how, Americans eat

In UW visit, Brian Wansink says people can change their habits by recognizing the five places in our "food environment"
Marsha Rule

Brian Wansink has spent much of his life thinking about food and wondering about Americans’ relationship to it.

“I grew up in Sioux City, Iowa. Like a lot of people in the Midwest, I spent a lot of my early years around food. I spent my summers walking the bean fields, selling vegetables, and later delivering pizza,” he said. “I always found it puzzling that so much of the world has a very different view towards food than we Americans do. In most of our environment, food is incredibly affordable, incredibly attractive—incredibly available.”

Wansink is the former executive director of U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the federal agency that developed the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and promoted the Food Guide Pyramid. He discussed his an approach to healthy eating in October at UW's John R. Hogness Symposium on HealthCare. He now teaches marketing at Cornell University and directs the school's Food and Brand Lab.

Brian Wansink speaks about nutrition at a UW symposium.
Brian Wansink

Best known for his work on consumer behavior and food, and for popularizing such terms as “mindless eating,” Wansink talked about how microenvironments influence what and how much people eat, and how much they enjoy it.

“We study the ways the cues in our environment lead us to eat too much and too much of the wrong food. There are powerful, very small changes that can help us to mindlessly eat less than mindlessly overeat.”

The solution to changing eating behaviors is not through traditional education, but by changing our food environments, he thinks.

“We all know that eating an apple is better for you than eating a cookie. But, what do most of us want 70 percent of the time? It is certainly not the apple. What can we do to nudge ourselves to eat better?

“There are five places in our food environment where we virtually purchase and eat all of our food. Those places are our homes, workplaces, schools, grocery stores and restaurants.  If each of us made a couple of personal changes in those areas and encouraged those places to make one or two changes to help us, our lives and those of most of our neighbors would be better.”

To illustrate how small environmental changes can make a difference in food consumption, Wansink cited some research findings from his lab.

“For example, portion size. The better determinant of how much we are going to eat today than yesterday, is what size of a plate we’re going to serve our dinner on. If we serve off of a 10-inch plate rather than a 12-inch plate, we will serve ourselves 22 percent less food,” Wansink said. “Our research finds that if a person eats off of a 10-inch plate instead of a 12-inch and is then asked if they’re still hungry, they will say, ‘No, I ate a full plate of food.’

“The biggest determinant of whether you are going to go for seconds is whether the serving bowl is on the table or six or more feet away from you. The average person eats 19 percent less food when the food is six or more feet away. “

Changing the way Americans eat, he said, will take a collective effort of individuals, the food industry and governments working together to change the environments in which Americans purchase and consume their food.

Wanskink is a best-selling author. His latest book, "Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life," will be published by William Morrow in March 2014. He also writes the "Chew on This" column for MSNBC and "Food Think with Wansink," a column on nutrition for