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The solution is in making better choices. Psychology. But most of the answers we hear aren’t legit.
So I called a guy who knows the real deal: Brian Wansink.
He leads food psychology research at Cornell University and the White House chose him to revise US dietary guidelines.
He has a great website and is author of two smart books on the subject of tricking yourself into eating better:
I posted about his work before but this time I wanted answers straight from the man himself. And, man, did he ever deliver.
What you’re going to learn in this post:
Yeah, I said superheroes can help you eat better. Seriously. In fact, let’s start there…
Cookies calling your name? Ask yourself “What would Batman eat?”
Brian’s research showed this got kids to pick apple slices over french fries. Here’s Brian:
We found we could get kids to choose the healthier food much more often if we simply asked what their favorite superhero or their favorite princess would do. Even if they responded “french fries”, half the time they took the apple slices. It simply causes an interruption in their thinking that causes them to pause, hit the reset button inside their head and think again.
Sound crazy? Research really does show that thinking about fictional characters we love can help us make better decisions.
In fact, thinking about superheroes can even make you physically stronger. (I’ll be asking “What would Batman lift?” at the gym tomorrow.)
But some of you might be thinking, “He said that works for kids, Eric.”
Doesn’t matter. It’ll work for you too. Here’s Brian:
The same thing works for adults. If you’re faced with a decision like, “Should I eat dessert?” think of an admired person in your life. Say to yourself, “What would my cool friend Steve do?” You’ll find that about a third of the time it will be easier for you to make healthier decisions.
Ladies, feel free to envision Wonder Woman — unless you’re more the Catwoman type. (Hey, I don’t judge.)
(For plenty more awesome tips from Brian’s books click here.)
Okay, so you’re thinking about Batman when you eat. (I’ll bet you look dashing in a cape.) But the food war is often won or lost at the supermarket.
So what can you do to make sure you’re buying the right food in the first place?
Crazy, right? Believe it or not, a stick of gum in your mouth prevents junk food from entering your shopping cart. Here’s Brian:
We found that when people popped sugarless gum in their mouth it made them less hungry. It soothed cravings and some people even reduced how many snack foods they bought by about 90%.
Here’s the important thing to remember: not all gum is created equal. Go for sugar-free bubble gum or sugar-free mint gum. Other kinds can actually increase appetite. Here’s Brian:
But one of the things we also found is that it can’t be sugared gum or even flavored gum because that can work in the opposite direction. The stuff that works best is sugar-free bubble gum or sugar-free mint gum. Those are the two craving killers.
(For more on how the magic of gum can change your life — including make you smarter — click here.)
With superheroes on your mind and gum in your mouth you’re well on your way. But what about when you’re in a restaurant?
Now you need to think like a real estate agent: location, location, location.
Watch where you sit. Did you choose a booth? You’re 80% more likely to order dessert and 80% less likely to order salad.
Sitting by the TV? You’re much more likely to order BBQ. Sitting closer to the bar? Guess who’s going to be drinking more than they thought?
Where are you safe? Head for a window seat. Here’s Brian:
People who sat in booths were about 80% more likely to order dessert than people sitting in a normal table and you’re about 80% less likely to order salad. People sitting near windows were much more likely to order salads. People sitting at tall tables were almost two to three times as likely to order chicken or fish. If you’re sitting within ten feet of a TV set you’re much, much more likely to order barbecue than not. If you are seated at a table close to the bar, on average, your table’s going to be ordering three more beers than the table that’s farther from the bar.
And those menus aren’t haphazardly thrown together. They are often marvels of psychological trickery.
Anything highlighted, in a box or a different font is going to catch your eye and you’ll be more likely to order it.
Be careful when reading the descriptions. Clever names and appealing adjectives make you 28% more likely to pick something. Here’s Brian:
Anything that’s in the corners or in a box or highlighted or in a different font or has an icon next to it has a huge leg up in its likelihood of being chosen. The description of a menu item has a tremendous impact not only on whether we’re going to order the item but also on how much we’re going to like it. In our research we found a real difference between calling something “Succulent Italian Seafood Fillet” instead of just “seafood fillet.” People are about 28% more likely to take it. And they’re also willing to pay about fifteen to twenty percent more for it.
So how do you find something that’s healthy and tasty? Ask the server, “What are three of your lighter items that are most popular?” Here’s Brian:
If you want to get something a little bit healthier ask the server, “What are three of your lighter items that are most popular?” You don’t want to say “What are your healthiest things?” because all she’s going to do is point at salads.
(For more of Brian’s advice on how to eat smart at restaurants, click here.)
So you’re good in the supermarket and at restaurants. But what about all that eating you do at work?
Keep two words in mind: distance and happiness.
As we’ve talked about before, distance is a big, big deal. You eat less when food is farther away and more when it’s closer. Here’s Brian:
People ate half as much if we simply moved the candy dish off their desk and placed it six feet away.
Simple barriers have the same effect.
Here’s an experiment that Google did recently. The M&Ms in their New York office used to be in baskets. So instead they put them in bowls with lids. The lid doesn’t require a lot of effort to lift but it reduced the number of M&Ms consumed in their New York office by 3 million a month.
So that’s distance. What about happiness? It’s important to understand the psychology of workplace eating.
When you aren’t having fun at work you often tell yourself you deserve to eat more because you’re working hard.
If you enjoy your job more (or have fun going out to eat with colleagues at lunch) you’ll find this happens less. Here’s Brian:
You see food as a reward you deserve because you’re doing something you don’t want to do. “I’ve been working all day so I deserve a snack” or “I deserve more to eat tonight at dinner.”
(For more on how to be happier at work, click here.)
And now we come to the most sinister and dangerous of all the scenarios: get-togethers, dinner parties and holiday gatherings.
Say “no” to food and you could insult the host… and that often turns into an excuse to binge. What to do? Brian has answers.
Here are the two tricks:
Our research found that people ate 11% of their calories at Thanksgiving before they even eat dinner. The peanuts, the Chex Mix and stuff like that. One of the biggest reasons that people say they overeat at Thanksgiving is they don’t want to offend their host. So the easiest way to not offend your host and eat 10% less is just don’t eat the stuff that she bought at the store. And the second thing is that nobody remembers how much you take of something but they do remember whether you asked for seconds. So just take a little bit the first time but make sure you ask for seconds and that she hears you. All she’s going to remember is that you really appreciated what she made and asked for more.
(For more tips on how to handle eating at gatherings, click here.)
Armed with these tips you should be ready for anything. Let’s round them up and get more insight from Brian.
Brian’s great tips for healthy eating are:
Research shows we have a crazy relationship with food sometimes. But you can overcome a lot of this with simple deceit and trickery.
What makes this so much fun is that the person you need to trick is you.
Brian and I talked for a while so there are a number of other great tips that I’ll be including in my weekly email (including the one sentence that helps people stop overeating immediately.) Join now to learn more.
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