Have a full plate

A Hebrew translation of a book by an insightful US food psychologist and behavioral economist can make Israelis – at home, at work and at school.

Soda (photo credit: TNS)
(photo credit: TNS)
You don’t have to count calories to lose weight – just changing the size of your plates and the shape of your glasses; moving your pantry farther away from the kitchen; making what junk food you have less visible; removing your TV from the kitchen and making a wide variety of other changes in your environment can help.
Restaurants, supermarkets and groceries can make higher profits by promoting salads and fresh produce, as can food manufacturers who put food in smaller packages. Learn from normal- weight or thin people how they eat at buffets, such as by first surveying all the food and only then choosing what you really like, and sitting with their backs to the mountains of food. Change environments in cafeterias and kitchens at work and at school.
Hundreds of tips, backed up by graphic explanations and checklists, are provided by Prof. Brian Wansink, a leading behavioral economist, food psychologist and bestselling author in Slim by Design – Mindless Eating Solutions for Every Life. The 2014 book, published in English by William Morrow, has just been translated for the Israeli public into Hebrew by the Schocken Publishing House in Tel Aviv as the NIS 99. 334-page, softcover Lirzot Lelo Ma’amatz Be’ezrat Itzuv Sevivat Ha’achila.
Followed by 30 pages of footnotes, the book is academic but very easy for the layman to read and follow the author’s recommendations. Not everyone will repaint his or her kitchen or send letters to the managers of their favorite restaurants to advise (pre-prepared texts are provided) them on making higher profits by saving on food while keeping their customers happy. This is certainly not the typical diet book found on every bookstore shelf.
Backed by decades of scientific research on many thousands of Americans and observations of how and why people eat – Wansink is innovative and even presents flashes of brilliance in his insights. While not everything is applicable to Israel – such as entering the house via the front door rather than through the kitchen – several pages about Israeli efforts to combat obesity were added by a local clinical dietitian and most recommendations can be implemented here.
WRITING IN a country where more than half the population (including children) are overweight or obese, Wansink writes that he has spent the last quarter century trying to change the eating behavior of his compatriots.
“I’m a behavioral scientist who changes the way we eat in a fun, painless and scalable, meet-people-where-they-are way.
I believe this most easily happens without taking away choices, without finger wagging or without using the word ‘can’t.’ Can’t doesn’t work very well for 90 percent of us – that’s the 90% I want to help.”
His recommendations have been adopted in many places and by various food companies: the introduction of smaller, 100-calorie packages, narrower and taller glasses in bars (to prevent over-pouring of alcohol), the use of elaborate names and mouth-watering descriptions in many chain restaurant menus to increase enjoyment of healthful food and the removal of 500 million calories from restaurants each year.
He took a two-year leave of absence from Cornell University in New York, where he teaches applied economics and management, to accept a White House appointment as executive director of the US Department of Agriculture’s Center of Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which sets down policy guidelines for the federal government.
The pioneer of the Small Plate Movement, Wansink presents persuasive research conducted at his Cornell food and brand Lab using cartoons, drawings, graphs, charts and floor plans of eating environments that could make healthful eating mindlessly easy.
One of the first experiments he conducted with his doctoral students was in 1996, when they examined how the size of food packages influenced how much people ate.
They found that the bigger the package of chips or other junk food, the more they ate.
Handing out free “Wheat Thins” and M&M candies to cinema-goers in Philadelphia, they put 440 calories worth in large plastic bags. But when these ran out, they had to distribute to each four small bags holding only 110 calories each. The researchers found that when given the small bags, the people at the movie unconsciously ate the contents of only two bags or so, leaving the rest, while those who received big bags with the same amount ate it all. They were also willing to pay more for smaller bags.
Many more studies confirmed these surprising results. At home, if you use your microwave less, you tend to eat smaller but better-planned meals and less processed junk food, Wansink observed. If you leave breakfast cereals out on the kitchen table on a regular basis, you are very likely to eat too much of them to handle your hunger than if they were stored inside kitchen cabinets.
Eighty percent of our food purchases are carried out within eight kilometers of our homes, writes Wansink.
Within this radius are the supermarkets, grocery stories and restaurants you go to, one’s workplace and your children’s school. If you want to change your eating environments, you have to focus on these locations, he continues.
“You don’t have to change the whole world.”
Wansink and his team followed thin people around in restaurants and found that they surveyed buffets first without putting anything on their plates so they could choose what they most wanted. All without being aware of their behavior, they chose smaller plates, sat far from the buffet and with their backs facing the tables piled high and chewed their food longer.
When they researchers suggested to restaurant owners that they purchase plates sized at only 25 centimeters rather that the usual 28 centimeters, the portions looked bigger, causing them customers to eat less and not even notice the difference.
When they asked thousands of Americans how much weight they wanted to lose, the average was surprisingly moderate – just seven kilos. This is an achievable aim for most overweight people, as they can lose half a kilo a month merely by changing the environment in which they eat, the author insists.
Just the color of your dishes can make you eat more. Wansink found that if they were the same hue as the food they consumed, people ate 18% more on average. If you leave potato chips, cookies and soft drinks on the kitchen counter for snacks, you are likely to weigh 10 kilos more than those who place fruit bowls on it.
Place cut vegetables on the refrigerator shelves that are at the height of your face; make the kitchen a place that is less comfortable for snacking (by taking out the TV), and if you have to have some junk food in the refrigerator for the kids, these products should be stored in aluminum foil rather than transparent plastic bags. so they are less visible. If you drink wine with dinner, pour it into tall glasses that hold up to 300 milliliters, and you will find that you drink less of the calorie-rich beverage than if they were wider and squatter.
When parents distribute foods onto plates, children eat considerably less than when the kids serve themselves. Serving spoons should also be smaller. All these enable people to eat less without feeling hungrier, insists the author.
If you have apples and cookies for dessert, ask children what they think Batman, for example, would prefer, and they will reach for the fruit. Refrigerators with the freezer on the bottom and fruits and vegetables on shelves opposite you will encourage you to eat them rather than microwave processed foods.
Encourage yourself to cook from raw materials rather than to purchase processed food that merely has to be heated up. The refrigerator door should open in the direction of the sink, where you wash vegetables and fruits. Although this claim is not completely scientific, Wansink found that kitchens that were not too light (white) or too dark were more conducive to cooking healthful foods.
AS FOR restaurants, their owners are keenly interested in making more money and serving less food while making their customers happy, Wansink declares.
“They want you to eat in their establishment and not in the place across the street.
They want you to spend your money on the types of foods on which they make the most profit.”
Restaurateurs make much more money on salads than on expensive meats, so they should encourage customers to partake of salad bars. The researchers even found that those who sit near the windows order fewer drinks and eat more salads; those in compartments order more grilled meats and desserts; and those who sat around high tables consume more salad and fish.
Even the way the menu is laid out and how the food choices are named can affect food choices. Restaurants that are too light or dark and too noisy make less profit than those that aren’t. The more detail given about the dish makes them seem more delectable, Wansink insists. Bread should be served only when customers ask for it.
Restaurants can make the most profit if they offer half-sized servings; they charge proportionately more for less food, and their customers are healthier.
Fast-food joints can make customers happier – and encourage them to return – if they award a five-percent discount on more healthful, cheaper foods (such as salads), promote these on signs, posters and placemats in the restaurant.
THE DANISH government asked the Cornell researcher to suggest ways of changing grocery stores and supermarkets so that customers bought more healthful foods. He advised that supermarket carts be divided into two, with the front section reserved for fruits and vegetables – whose pictures could be stuck to the bottom and the back for other foods. Aisles where fresh produce is located should be roomier and more comfortable to navigate than those with processed junk food. There should also be checkout counters free of sweets if customers prefer them; they can have nonfood objects such as batteries, magazines or brushes in them. Wansink also found that chewing sugarless menthol gum while making supermarket purchases tends to make people buy fewer snacks and other impulse purchases.
THE WORKPLACE is also an environment that can be altered if employers want their workers to be healthier. Workers who keep containers of sweets on their desks have been found to weigh seven kilos more, on average, than those who don’t. Placing a bowl with bananas or other fruit and health-oriented magazines on the table can influence employees. Bottles of cold water or of fruit-flavored water in the refrigerator are preferable to soft drinks such as colas.
In workplace cafeterias, employees can be encouraged to eat better if salad bars offer cornucopias of vegetables and fruits and gooey desserts are left for the corners.
Employees should, of course, be encouraged to walk and to exercise in company gyms.
ALTHOUGH MOST Israeli schools do not have cafeterias – instead, children bring food from home – those that do can promote their health by making changes.
Again, salad and fruit bars should be encouraged. The more attractive the plates and bowls in which these are displayed, the more pupils will choose from them.
Surprisingly, the author does not advocate barring chocolate milk from cafeterias. He found that when children did not have the choice of this favorite drink, they consumed much less milk and were unhappy.
It is better to offer reduced-sugar chocolate milk, which is more healthful than the empty calories of soft drinks.
Even cafeteria trays can be designed differently, with recessed sections for different foods placed in differently shaped dishes.
These can encourage pupils to take more salads and fewer carbohydrates and desserts, he suggest.
As the Health Ministry has finally begun to consider the importance of preventing disease and excess weight, especially that caused by improper eating, and has even set up a public committee to make recommendations, it would be wise to consider a nationwide informational program based on the principles of Wansink’s book.