The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.
This is the motto of Brian Wansink, PhD, who leads the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. And isn’t it a great one? Imagine losing weight while seeming to do…
… nothing much.
Yes, it sounded like a pipe-dream to me to when I first heard about it, but then I started reading his material and thought that maybe, just maybe, this could work.The food psychology studies that Dr. Wansink and others have conducted show the impact that environmental cues have on our eating habits.
Brian has lots of ideas for changing our environmental cues, including the size of a plate, the use of pre-plating vs. family-style servings, the lighting in a room – they can all make a difference in how we eat.
One of his more than 700 food studies includes the “McSubway” study, which took a look at eating habits when people perceived food to be healthy (at Subway) vs. unhealthy (at McDonald’s).
In this study, Wansink and his colleagues interviewed 250 lunch goers each from Subway and McDonald’s.
They asked survey participants what they had eaten and how many calories they thought were in their lunch.
The average McDonald’s patron thought they had eaten only 876, when in actuality they had eaten 1,093 (25% more).
When asked if they looked for nutritional information when ordering, only 57 were able to recount any nutritional information for the food. The majority didn’t feel that knowing the nutritional content would affect their choice of lunches.
Now onto the Subway crowd.
Of the Subway crowd, 157 could answer questions about the nutritional content of the food. The general impression among the 250 patrons was that the food was healthy, creating a kind of “halo effect” that appeared to encompass all of the food at Subway, not just the healthy options.
A majority of the patrons had added things like cheese, bacon, mayo, sodas, and chips to their orders, thus partially negating their healthier choice.
The Subway patrons had eaten on average 644 calories, though they estimated it to be 34% less (495 calories).
What did Wansink conclude from this study?
While the Subway lunch was less caloric than the McDonald’s one overall, the McDonald’s crowd expected the food to have more calories and so estimated more accurately.
This has huge ramifications when trying to budget our calories throughout the day.
When I think that my lunch was only 495 calories, I may eat one more of those wonderful rosemary-lemon sugar cookies in my pantry. But if my lunch was in fact 644 calories, I will have overeaten that day.
And if I did this on a continual basis, I’d gain 15 pounds that year simply from my own miscalculations.
What can we do about this?
How about starting with our Power of 3 Challenge?
I am resurrecting our 2011 Power of 3 Challenge, asking you and 2,499 other practitioners to commit to making three small food changes over the next 10 days.
Once 2,500 practitioners have made this pledge, we’ll donate $25,000 to Save the Children to feed Syrian children caught in the refugee crisis.
You can sign up for the challenge here.
Let’s get a movement going.
Do your patients’ perceptions of healthy food influence their caloric consumption? Please share your thoughts about how we can get meaningful change – just leave a comment below.