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Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook

Wansink, Brian and Jeffery Sobal (2007). Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook. Environment and Behavior, 39(1), 106-123. doi: 10.1177/0013916506295573

Environmental cues have a significant influence on what and how much we eat and can nudge us to “mindlessly eat.” However, such cues are often overlooked in food consumption research. This research aims to demonstrate just how many of our food decisions are mindless and how our environment may affect those decisions.

In the first study, 139 participants completed a questionnaire. First they were asked to estimate the number of food decisions that they made daily. Then, they answered 15 “what,” “when,” “where,” “how much,” and “with whom” questions about food decisions made in a 24-hour period. Participants also recorded their height, weight, gender, and age to calculate their BMI.

The survey results showed that individuals underestimated their number of daily food decisions by an average of 220 decisions. Additionally, obese participants (BMI >30) made more than 100 more food-related decisions than participants who were merely overweight (BMI >25). The number of decisions made by obese participants was not statistically more than those made by normal weight participants (BMI <25). 

For the second study 379, participants were split into two groups: the experimental group was given an exaggerated cue, such as larger bowl, plate, or package, to consume food from. The control group was given normal sized bowls, packages, or plates. After eating, the experimental group was then given a short questionnaire asking “How much did you eat compared to what is typical for you?” and “In this study, you were in a group that was given [a larger bowl]. Those people in your group ate an average of 20%-50% more than those who were instead given [a smaller bowl]. Why do you think you might have eaten more?”

The group given larger plates, bowls or packages consumed an average of 31% more food than those given normal sized plates, bowls and packages. 73% of the experimental group believed that they had not consumed more than they typically would. After the bias was revealed to the experimental group, 21% denied having eaten more, 75% attributed it to other reasons (such as hunger), and only 4% attributed it to exaggerated bowl, plate or package size.

These research findings demonstrate that we are aware of only a fraction of the food decisions we make and are either unaware of how our environment influences these decisions or we are unwilling to acknowledge it. Normal weight and obese participants made the most food decisions; those of normal weight likely made more “no” related decisions than the obese participants. While the effect of certain environmental cues may cause overconsumption, there are other cues that could have the opposite effect and help us achieve or maintain healthy weight.