I have to admit that, as a busy person, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the multitude of choices that I have to make on a daily basis. Coming home after a rough day at work, deciding what to have for dinner is not one of my most pleasant moments. I was reminded of this the other day when I read an article by Dr. Brian Wansink, professor in Cornell’s Applied Economics and Management Department, where he is Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. The article reported on a study that Wansink conducted with Dr. Jeffery Sobal, professor in Cornell’s Division of Nutritional Sciences. In the study, the researchers surveyed 139 people and asked them to estimate how many decisions they made about food and beverages in one day. Participants were also asked more detailed questions about when, what, and how much they ate. When asked to estimate how many decisions they made about food in an average day, they guessed an average of 14.4 food-related decisions. After creating an aggregated index of food decisions the participants actually made, they found that the average participant made an estimated number of 226.7 decisions about food per day.
Whew, no wonder I’m tired at the end of a busy day! The take away on this research is that we are unaware of just how often we are faced with decisions about eating and equally unaware about how much our environment influences our choices. In other research, Wansink has investigated how much factors such as package size, plate size, and serving size can bias how much we consume. The consistent finding from this research is that various aspects of our “food environment” -such as the way food is labeled, stored, and eaten-can have a big influence on our eating habits and preferences.
These results can be pretty alarming and discouraging, when you consider how much effort advertisers put into manipulating our choices. But, there is hope. Wansink and some of his colleagues have also found that we can have better nutrition and eating habits by making small changes to our homes and being more mindful of our eating habits. He is collaborating with Human Ecology professors Carol Devine and Elaine Wethington on a new study called Small Changes and Lasting Effects, which the team hopes will lead to the development of mindful eating strategies aimed at reducing weight through small, sustained changes in eating behavior combined with increases in physical activity.
Wansink, Brian and Jeffrey Sobal (2007), “Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Food Decisions We Overlook,” Environment and Behavior 39:1, 106-123.