So here’s some food for thought: In a world of unlimited options, how do you know which choices to make? There's no end to the variety and quality of the choices we have at our fingertips. Will you have a salad for lunch today or a burger? Did you go for your morning run or did you skip it?
Every choice we make (and don't make) expresses the larger truth of who we are. I always say that how we eat is how we live and how we live is how we eat. If we love and respect our bodies, we are more likely to make healthy diet choices. If we harbour deep pain or engage in self-criticising thoughts, we may make very different choices.
Added to this our environment has a lot to do with the decisions we make regarding food. By making some small changes, we can improve our food choices and reduce our risks of developing chronic diseases such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Mindless Weight Loss
Brian Wansink, Ph.D., of Cornell University, coined the term "the mindless margin." According to this concept, even a few extra calories a day can slowly lead to weight gain. Conversely, if we cut back on our food intake even slightly, we can lose weight without hunger pangs or fatigue. This is what he refers to as "mindless weight loss.”
Here are some of the ways our environment contributes to mindless eating.
1. Plate Size and Portion Distortion
One culprit behind many of our overindulgent eating behaviours is something called the "size-contrast illusion." This is an illusion that tricks our brain when we estimate how big something is.
Dr. Wansink showed that study participants who got big ice cream bowls served themselves, on average, 31% more ice cream than those with the small bowls. This difference added up to 127 calories. The same effect occurred when participants used either small or large ice cream scoopers to serve themselves. People who used the big scoopers served themselves 57% more than people with the small scoopers did.
As this experiment shows, when we serve ourselves food, the dish or bowl we use sets the stage for how our minds perceive the serving size. So, for example, a ½ cup serving of pasta on a small plate will look much bigger and more satisfying than the same ½ cup serving on a larger plate.
2. The Convenience Factor
In today's 24/7 society, many of us are always on the go. And so are many of our food choices. We choose foods that are convenient to save time and effort. Unfortunately, this often happens at the expense of healthy choices.
The goal, says Dr. Wansink, should be to make healthy foods convenient and unhealthy foods inconvenient.
For example, what if the chocolate on your desk was in the desk drawer instead? What if it was in the file cabinet across the room? Would you change how much chocolate you ate?
Dr. Wansink tested these scenarios with real people. The results were quite surprising. People ate less chocolate as the bar moved farther away from them. The number of calories eaten throughout the day dropped from 225 to 150 to 100. The extra time it took to get to the chocolate when it was farther away gave employees a chance to think twice about whether or not they were hungry and truly wanted the chocolate.
3. Eating With Friends and Family
Eating is an opportunity to gather with friends and family and enjoy each other's company. Have you ever wondered how the people you eat with change how much you eat?
It just so happens that eating with only one other person increases your intake by 35% — a trend that continues with each additional person in the group. If you sit down to dinner with seven family members, your intake increases on average by 96% — that's almost twice as much.
This trend doesn't hold true for all people, though. Those of us who normally eat a lot by ourselves will eat less when we share a meal with others. Light eaters tend to eat more with others, and heavy eaters tend to eat less.
Changing Your Food Environment
Here are a few simple changes you can make to your environment to improve your food choices.
• Use smaller plates, bowls and utensils to reduce portion sizes.
• Make unhealthy foods, like cokes, chips and chocolate, more inconvenient: Put them in the back of the cupboard, in a drawer or in another room.
• Make healthy foods, like fruits and vegetables, more convenient: Put them in the front of the cupboard or pre-package some healthy snacks and meals for an easy grab-and-go option. For example, try having a bowl of fresh fruit out on the counter during the day, or bags of nuts ready to go in the car.
• Be mindful of how eating with others can affect how much you eat.
• Go slowly. If you find you are finishing meals in less than 20 minutes, try putting the fork down between bites or taking smaller bites each time.
• Enjoy your food. Try to savour each bite and focus only on the flavour of the food. Ignore everything else going on around you. One way to do this is to chew your food slowly.