Most people make upwards of 250 food-related decisions a day. Sound high? That's because researchers believe the majority of these decisions are made unconsciously, and that many of our eating habits are actually driven by subtle environmental cues. How we manipulate these cues can have a huge impact on our eating habits.
There are two things to take away from this. The first is that if you're trying to eat right, research suggests that good intentions and willpower alone may not be enough to help you achieve your goals, because unrecognized environmental cues could be sabotaging your efforts. The second is that by recognizing these cues, you can make simple changes to your eating environment that could help you eat healthier without even knowing it. As psychologist Brian Wansink puts it, "the best diet is the one you don't know you're on."
Wansink is what is known as a consumer psychologist. He's the head of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, where he has spent close to two decades identifying subtle environmental cues and figuring out not just how they beget unhealthy eating habits, but how they can be tweaked to encourage healthier ones; he's a former Executive Director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion; his studies are responsible for the development of the 100 Calorie Pack and the Small Plate Movement.
Dr. Kelly Brownell, Director of The Rudd Center for Obesity at Yale University, has called Wansink "The Sherlock Holmes of Food." And for good reason. Since its creation in 1992, Wansink's Food and Brand Lab has brought humanity's scientific understanding of its relationship with food and food-eating to entirely new levels, all by examining subtle, psychological, environmental cues.
So what kind of environmental cues are we talking about?
Soundbites like the these will probably sound familiar: the food labels on the snacks you buy can have unintended effects on your caloric intake (this study, for example, showed that low-fat labels lead people to eat 16-23% more calories); children who are given cash (rather than a debit card) to purchase school lunches are more likely to purchase healthier food; even when we don't care for the food we're eating, if it's served out of a large container we're liable to eat too much of it. But what makes Wansink's research so unique is that, like all good science, it tends to ask why it's getting certain results.
To give you a sense of what we're talking about here's an example of how Wansink's research has revealed our susceptibility to well-known optical illusions, and how they still manage trick us into consuming more than we need to.
Take a look at the first exercise in this video. The tall-skinny-glass versus short-fat-glass optical illusion is one that most of us, as adults, are familiar with. The mistake that the little girl makes in this video is therefore one that, again, thanks to our experience, we can observe with amusement.
The wonderful thing about optical illusions, however, is that they often manage to dupe us even once we know how they work.
Of course, not everyone likes to be duped by a trick they already know the secret to, especially when money is involved. Consider, for example, The Great Qwest Field Beer Scandal of 2011. Last season, fans of the Seattle Seahawks looking to cheer on their team with a cold brew in hand could shell out $7.25 for a 16oz beer, or $8.50 for 20oz beer.