One sentence summarizes 25 years of my research: It’s easier to change
your eating environment than to change your mind.
It’s hard to resist the candy dish sitting on your desk—it’s easier to
move it across the room. It’s a pain to remind yourself not to overserve
on a big plate, but it’s a breeze to use a smaller plate.
While there are many solutions to mindless eating, most of them go
undiscovered because we don’t look for them. Instead, we’re too focused
on the food and not on our surroundings. We’re too focused on eating
less of one thing and more of another or on trying that new “Yeast and
Potting Soil Diet” we read about on the Internet.
For 90% of us, the solution to mindless eating is not mindful eating—our
lives are just too crazy and our willpower’s too wimpy. Instead, the
solution is to tweak our homes, workplaces, schools, restaurant dining
and grocery shopping so we mindlessly eat less instead of more. It’s
easier to use a small plate, face away from the buffet and Frisbee-spin
the bread basket across the table than to resist.
Willpower is hard and has to last a lifetime. Rearranging your life to
be slim by design is easy. If we want to automatically eat better at
home, we don’t have to change our minds; all we have to do is make a few
changes to our home and how we behave there.
Color Me Slim
My earlier book, “Mindless Eating” (Bantam 2006), was
filled with secret studies that uncovered the hidden persuaders around
our home that trick us into overeating—things like serving spoons,
spouses, cupboards and colors. But most of these (except maybe spouses)
can also be reversed to make us slimmer rather than fatter. Take color:
The color of your plate can make you fat. If it’s the same color as the
food, you’ll serve yourself 18% more.
We discovered this one afternoon when we invited 60 lunch-goers to a
free pasta lunch at Cornell University’s summer Alumni Reunion. We gave
them either a red plate or a white plate and sent half the diners over
to a red pasta buffet (marinara sauce) and the other half to a white
pasta buffet (Alfredo sauce).
After they served themselves, we secretly weighed how much they took. If
they served either white pasta on a white plate or red on red, they
piled on 18% more calories than those with opposite-colored plates (van
Ittersum & Wansink 2012). This is news you can use: When you’re eating
at home, choose plates that contrast with the color of your food. Since
white starches—pasta, rice and potatoes—are the big diet busters, using
darker plates is smart. If we want to automatically eat better at home,
we don’t have to change our minds; all we have to do is make a few
changes to our home and how we behave there.
The Syracuse Study
What does a slim person’s kitchen look like? If we knew that, we could
set up our own kitchens in a similar way. While it’s no guarantee we’d
lose weight overnight, at least it might tilt the scale in the right
To figure this out, we visited 230 homes in Syracuse, New York—a small
city demographically representative of the rest of the U.S.—weighed the
inhabitants and took pictures of all the food that was out on the
counters (see Figure 1). Nothing went unsnapped. We then spent 8 months
coding these kitchens to see what slim people do that might make them
slim by design.
First we wondered if big kitchens turn us into big people. Tons of
people think so, but it’s not the way it is in the real world. Part of
this has to do with money. Richer people have bigger kitchens, and they
also have personal trainers, designer workout clothes, sparkly exercise
equipment and the leisure time to use them. If bigger kitchens make you
eat more, bigger budgets can help you work it off. Big kitchens aren’t
the problem. It’s what’s in the kitchen.
The average woman who kept potato chips on the counter weighed 8 pounds
more than her neighbor who didn’t. That makes perfect sense. Chips are
the good-tasting bad boy of nutrition—they’re irresistibly tempting, you
can’t eat just one, and they make you fat. But potatoes aren’t anywhere
near the most dangerous counter food. The most dangerous food is the
meek, whole-grain, vitamin-enriched breakfast cereal in the white box
that’s covered in sunshine, rainbows and pictures of skinny smiling
women with gleaming teeth.
Women who had even one box of breakfast cereal visible anywhere in their
kitchen weighed 21 pounds more than their neighbors who didn’t. Cereal
has what we call a health halo. The boxes are covered with phrases like
“Contains Whole Grain” and “Now With 11 Essential Vitamins and
Minerals,” so we underestimate the calories and overeat the contents to
reward ourselves for being so healthy. But having cereal on the counter
adds weight to women more than to men. In fact, it had no impact on
men—possibly because they’re in the kitchen less. The more time you
spend at home, the more important it is to hide the food (Wansink, Hanks
& Kaipainen 2015).
“In sight, in stomach.” We eat what we see, not what we don’t.
First Seen, First Eaten
Suppose the first cereal you see in the morning is Fruity Pebbles and
the next four cereals are versions of bark- and twig-flavored granola.
Which are you going to choose? Our studies show you’re three times more
likely to eat the first food you see in the cupboard than the fifth one.
Rearrange your cupboard, pantry and refrigerator so the first foods you
see are the best for you.
Why not just totally vanquish all tempting foods from your house? First,
it’s fine to have an occasional treat. Second, it’s not realistic if you
have growing kids who constantly forage and bring friends over to feast.
Set up a designated “kids’ cupboard” that’s off-limits to you. One
mother of teenagers even put childproof locks on the cupboard. For
Those huge wholesale clubs like Sam’s and Costco are filled with great
food bargains. But once you get the forklift home, those bargains turn
into a burden for your cupboards—and your diet. We found that people who
had filled their cupboards with chips, juice boxes, cookies and even
ramen noodles ate half of everything they bought within the first week
of buying it. They ate it twice as fast as they normally would. If
you’re buying food in bulk, you’ll eat it faster and in greater
quantities than you otherwise would.
One solution is to repackage any supersized boxes into single-serve
Baggie sizes. A second solution is to store it as far away from reach as
possible—in the basement or a distant cupboard. You’ll get the cost
saving without the calories (Chandon & Wansink 2002).
Love wine, but hate headaches? Here’s how to automatically drink 10%
less. We brought 85 wine drinkers in for Happy Hour and gave them
different glasses and different wines and made them either sit or stand
(Walker, Smarandescu & Wansink 2014). Here’s what we found:
• We tend to focus on the height of what we pour and not
the width, so
we pour 12% less wine into taller white wineglasses that hold 10 ounces
than into those wider red wineglasses that hold the same.
When we look down at a glass, it looks more full than when we look at
it from the same level as the liquid. As a result, we’ll pour 12% less
in a glass when it’s sitting on the table compared with when we hold
Because red wine is easier to see than white wine, we pour about 9%
less white wine into a glass.
But it’s not just wineglasses. One winter we visited 86 Philadelphia
bartenders and asked them to pour how much alcohol they used to make a
gin and tonic, a whiskey on the rocks, a rum and Coke, and a vodka
tonic. It didn’t matter if they had worked there for 32 minutes or 32
years: The typical bartender poured 30% more alcohol into short, wide
10-ounce tumblers than into 10-ounce highball glasses. They focused on
the height of the liquid and not the width. Even when we asked them to
pour again 2 minutes later, we had the same result (Wansink & van
Family-Style Seconds and Thirds
Some families serve family-style meals and crowd all their serving bowls
onto the table. Other families pre-serve their food directly off the
stove or counter. We found that people who served from the stove or
counter ate 19% less total food compared with those serving themselves
right off the table (Payne, Smith & Wansink 2010). Having to get up and
walk another 6 feet for the food was enough for people to ask, “Am I
really that hungry?” The answer’s usually “Nope.” On the other hand, if
you want to eat more salad, plant that salad bowl right in the middle of
If eating family-style—piling all of the serving dishes on the table—is
a nonnegotiable must in your house, there might be a workaround. Serving
out of bowls with lids might cut down on seconds or thirds. In one of
our candy dish studies, simply putting a lid on a candy dish cut down
how many Hershey’s Kisses people ate by about a third (Painter, Wansink
& Hieggelke 2002; Wansink, Painter & Lee 2006). When food is out of
sight, it’s out of mind. The same idea might work if you cover the
casserole instead of temptingly leaving the top off.
These tablescape changes are easy. What keeps us from making them,
however, is that we think we’re smarter than a bowl. As a result we
think, Oh, now that I know this, it won’t happen to me, so
we don’t make any changes. But during the day’s chaos, our automatic
behaviors lead us to make the same mindless eating mistakes we’ve always
Show Me to a Slim Table
Does where you sit in a restaurant influence what you order? We recently
visited 27 restaurants across the country, and we measured and mapped
out the layout of each one. We knew how far each table or booth was from
the window and front door, whether it was in a secluded or well-traveled
area, how light or dark it was, and how far it was from the kitchen,
bar, restrooms and TV sets. After we’d mapped out the layouts and diners
began arriving, we were able to track what they ordered and how it
related to where they sat.
Are there fat tables in restaurants? This is preliminary, but so far it
looks like people ordered healthier foods if they sat by a window or in
a well-lit part of the restaurant, but they ate heavier food and ordered
more of it if they sat at a dark table or booth. People sitting farthest
from the front door ate the fewest salads and were 73% more likely to
order dessert. People sitting within two tables of the bar drank an
average of three more beers or mixed drinks (per table of four) than
those sitting one table farther away. The closer a table was to a TV
screen, the more fried food a person bought. People sitting at high-top
bar tables ordered more salads and fewer desserts.
Some of this makes sense. The darker it is, the more “invisible” you
might feel, the less easy it is to see how much you’re eating, and the
less conspicuous or guilty you might feel. Seeing the sunlight, people
or trees outside might make you more conscious about how you look, might
make you think about walking or might prime you for a green salad.
Sitting next to the bar might make you think it’s more normal to order
that second drink, and watching TV might distract you from thinking
twice about what you order. If high-top bar tables make it harder to
slouch or spread out like you could in a booth, they might cause you to
feel in control and to order the same way.
Or this could all just be random speculation. Now, the facts are what
they are, but why they happen is not always clear.
Does sitting in a dark, quiet booth in the back of the restaurant make
you order more dessert? Not necessarily. It might be that heavy
dessert-eaters naturally gravitate to those tables, or that a hostess
takes them there out of habit.
We have an expression in our lab: “If you want to be skinny, do what
skinny people do.” Either well-lit, elevated tables near windows make
you eat better, or people who eat better like to eat at well-lit,
elevated tables near windows. But while you’re contemplating the
causality, the couple next to you just took the last elevated table by
Scoring Big at Home
Mindless Eating contained about 150 proven, workable weight loss
tips we’d discovered from our studies. Since then we’ve discovered more
than 100 effective home-related tips and combined the hundred easiest
ones into a Slim-by-Design Home Scorecard that we update each year with
the best new tips we’ve discovered.
You can test this out in your own home. In 10 minutes you can take the
starter scorecard (see Figure 2) and check off what you do. Is the
kitchen organized? Is there fruit on the counter? Is the toaster put
away? After you finish, you add up the checkmarks, and that’s your
Slim-by-Design Home Score.
Earlier, shorter versions of our scorecard have been used by health-care
companies in places ranging from Los Angeles beach communities to the
state of Iowa. In one place, they even heroically claimed that it helped
contribute to raising the life expectancy of a sample of 786 residents
by almost 3 years (Buettner 2010). I think that’s a stretch, but it’s
probably in the right direction.
One benefit of the scorecard is that it usually shows progress each time
you fill it out. It can give you a tangible stroke that you’re doing the
right things that will eventually make you slim by design, even if
today’s scale didn’t budge. If you don’t care about making your house
slim by design for yourself, do it for your kids. It all starts with
taking 10 minutes to fill out your scorecard. One small step for you,
one giant step toward fat-proofing your family.
This article is excerpted from Slim by Design: Mindless Eating
Solutions for Everyday Life (William Morrow 2014) by Brian Wansink,
PhD. Learn more about the book at www.slimbydesign.org.
Buettner, D. 2010. The Minnesota miracle. AARP Magazine. Accessed Nov. 25, 2015. www.aarp.org/health/longevity/infor-01-2010/minnesota_miracle.html.
Chandon, P., & Wansink, B. 2002. When are stockpiled products consumed faster? A convenience—salience framework of postpurchase consumption incidence and quantity. Journal of Marketing Research, 39 (3), 321-35.
Painter, J.E., Wansink, B., & Hieggelke, J.B. 2002. How visibility and convenience influence candy consumption. Appetite, 3 (3), 237-38.
Payne, C.R., Smith, L.E., & Wansink, B. 2010. Dish here, dine there: Serving off the stove results in less food intake than serving off the table. FASEB Journal, 2, 741.4.
van Ittersum, K., & Wansink, B. 2012. Plate size and color suggestibility: The Delboeuf Illusion’s bias on serving and eating behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 39 (2), 215-28.
Walker, D., Smarandescu, L., & Wansink, B. 2014. Half ful or empty: Cues that lead wine drinkers to unintentionally overpour. Substance Abuse & Misuse, 49 (3), 295-302.
Wansink, B., Hanks, A.S., & Kaipainen, K. 2015. Kitchen counter correlates of
obesity: Observational study. Working paper.
Wansink, B., Painter, J.E., & Lee, YK. 2006. The office candy dish: Proximity’s influence on estimated and actual candy consumption. International Journal of Obesity, 30 (5), 871-75.
Wansink, B., & van Ittersum, K. 2003. Bottoms up! The influence of elongation and pouring on consumption volume. Journal of Consumer Research, 30 (3), 455-63.