Matt Perryman Matt Perryman

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think [Book Review]

In keeping with my theme of exploring the psychological side of training and nutrition, I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading on the cognitive and behavioral factors that go into decision making. As I said in my last book review (Switch by Chip & Dan Heath), the fields of cognitive science and behavioral psychology are underrated by us in the the fitness-related fields.

I know I was a prime example not that long ago. It was easy, almost intuitive, to write people off as ‘stupid’ or ‘uneducated’ when they fell for shameless marketing gimmicks or self-destructive ‘Bro’ training and diet methods. How times change.

I’m still convinced that human beings are irrational beings and emotional decision-makers. I’m still convinced that self-deception is a big part of that irrationality, such that very few of us are even aware of our schizoid natures. It’s just that I no longer think this condition is something to write off as ‘people are stupid’.

People are far more receptive to subtle emotional and environmental signals than we realize, while our rational, analytical powers are relegated to an advisory role. This is what we’re dealt, and it’s not going to change. Living by the cynical axiom ‘people are stupid’ isn’t a solution-producing thought process. Accepting this and learning how to work with it should be the goal.

Once you realize the set of obstacles facing you, you can troubleshoot and find ways to cope. The human mind is no exception.

Enter Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Dr. Brian Wansink. Wansink, who’s been involved in a bewildering array of research into consumer behavior and eating patterns at his Food and Brand Lab, takes us on a fascinating trip into the average eater’s mind. The results are at times funny, occasionally depressing, and always compelling.

The premise is simple: you, the psychological you that lives behind your eyes, are a mess of conflicting impulses. On the one hand, you’re a smart, educated, rational mind that exercises deliberate control over every action. On the other, you’re a slave to vestigial signals relayed from a junk-food craving body.

The left hand rarely knows what the right is doing, and it’s amazing to watch some of the unconscious — mindless — eating behaviors that happen right under our metaphorical and literal noses. Even education and information is no predictor; educated wealthy folks surrounded by nutritional information will eat just as badly as the proletariat.

In short, information and education aren’t enough. Overeating is a subliminal problem, an artifact of biological evolution, a food-acquiring mechanism run amok in a calorie-rich world. Conscious intervention can help the process along, but the greatest changes will come in what Wansink calls the ‘mindless margin’ — various tricks of food packaging, presentation, or preparation that can create substantial changes in our food intake.

As a counter to simplistic ideas that insulin drives us to overeat, I found this to be a refreshing look at the issue. Indeed, multiple studies covered in the book point out that the obese and overweight have tendencies to overeat and underestimate what they’ve eaten when compared to those of healthy weight. The cognitive component of overeating is rarely considered, and even aggressively written off by those who want to shift blame. This book leaves little wiggle-room for those sticking to the Not My Fault camp.

Yes, it is your fault and at the same time, it’s not as if you sit down and deliberately want to get fat. It’s those subtle signals acting on the lizard brain which make the decisions for you. But once aware of this, once you know it’s happening, you can intervene and make real changes. This will involve changes in how you buy food, how you eat it, and how you live — but that should go without saying. When have the same behaviors that got you into a situation ever gotten you out of it?

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, Mindless Eating comes with a strong recommendation. I love the elegance of merging behavioral psychology with fitness; there’s so much explanatory power, whether you’re looking at overeating or buying fad supplements that don’t work or following destructive, unproductive training methods.

This doesn’t happen because of stupidity or even ignorance; it’s about tickling the right spots in the mesolimbic system and watching the robot follow its programming — and then construct a story after the fact to explain why it made the right choice.

And it certainly won’t be corrected by reciting correct information and getting surly when people don’t listen. If you want the dog to take its medicine, you hide it in a treat.

So, uh, yeah. Read Mindless Eating. For more information, you can have a look at Wansink’s site,