Mindless Eating Book Review

The average person makes well over 200 decisions about food every day.

Traditional diet books focus on what dietitians and health practitioners know. This book focuses on what psychologists and marketers know.

Recommended by Ramit Sethi, Mindless Eating is a well-researched, and very interesting book, that illustrates how situational circumstances are greatly related to our behavior. In other words, your appetite is affected by lots of factors other than your hunger.

I realize that some of these book reviews/excerpts get quite long and therefore don’t get read by a lot of you. I also realize that most of you here are looking for business and marketing insights; however, despite focusing on eating, Wansink’s book has some great insights into the psychology of why we overeat. I think you’ll find that many of these insights can be applied to other aspects of your life.

If not, enjoy the deviation from what you’re accustomed to seeing here and learn something new that will invariably improve your life.

Onward with the excerpts!

[Photo Credit: Shanice Garcia]

The Mindless Margin

The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.

People unknowingly anchor their focus on the number they first hear and let that bias them. We’re all tricked by our environment. Even if we “know it” in our head, most of the time we have way too much on our mind to remember it and act on it. That’s why it’s easier to change our environment than our mind.

95 percent of all people who lose weight on a diet gain it back.

Most diets are deprivation diets. Deprivation diets don’t work for three reasons:

  1. Our body fights against them
  2. Our brain fights against them
  3. Our day-to-day environment fights against them

[Editor’s Note: This is why the mindless margin (the margin or zone in which we can either slightly over eat or slightly under eat without being aware of it is so important, by the way.] 

We can lose a half pound a week without triggering metabolism slowdown. The only problem is this is too slow for many of us. We think weight loss has to be all or nothing. This is why so many impatient people try to lose it all and end up losing nothing.

The average person can lose weight  by walking an extra 2,000 steps each day (about one mile), or by eating 100 calories less than we otherwise would.

[Editor’s Note: Which do you think is easier?]

Strategy: Dish out 20 percent less than you think you might want. Increase fruits and veggies by 20%.

The Forgotten Food

Your stomach can’t count.

Interesting antidote: Inmates, with an average sentence of six months mysteriously gained 20-25 pounds during the course of their “visit.” It wasn’t because of the food they ate, or their lack of exercise, but because their orange jumpsuits were so baggy they didn’t realize they were gaining the weight.

We believe our eyes not our stomach. In other words, volume trumps calories. We eat the volume we want, not the calories.

Obese people typically underestimate how much they eat by 30 to 40 percent.

It’s “meal size,” not “people size,” that determine how accurate we’ll be at estimating how many calories we’ve eaten.

Strategy: People who preplate their food eat about 14% less than people who take smaller portions and go back.

Surveying the Tablescape

Increasing the variety of food increases how much everyone eats.

Strategy: Mini-size your boxes and bowls. Repackage your food and snacks into smaller Ziploc bags or Tupperware containers, and serve it up in smaller dishes. Six ounces on a 8-inch plate looks like a nice-serving size; whereas, 6 ounces on a 12-inch plate looks like a tiny appetizer.

The Hidden Persuaders Around Us

We eat more of these visible “see-foods” (candy in a bowl on a desk) because we think about them more.

Make healthy foods easy to see, and less healthy foods hard to see. Healthy foods can migrate to the front, eye-level shelves of the refrigerator.

The more hassle it is to eat, the less we eat.

Strategy: Leave serving dishes in the kitchen. Put tempting foods in inconvenient places. Eat before you shop, use a list, and stick to the perimeter of the store.

Mindless Eating Scripts

Birds of a feather eat together. Couples and families tend to be similar sizes.

The less TV people watch, the skinnier they are.

The basic rule: distractions of all kinds make us eat, forget how much we eat, and extend how long we eat.

Strategy: Distract yourself before you snack. If you can’t distract yourself from a yummy snack, dish out your ration before you start rather than eating straight from the box or bag.

The Name Game

If you had a choice, would you choose Menu A or Menu B?

Mindless Eating - The Name Game

In the Mood for Comfort Food

People were almost twice as likely to reach for comfort food when they were happy than when they were sad.

We discovered that people who ate the best one (favorite food) first often shared one of two characteristics: they either grew up as a younger child or came from large families. The people most likely to save the best for last, on the other hand, had grown up as an only child or as the oldest. They could afford to save their favorite foods as a reward.

If a boy grew up not knowing when or what the next meal would be, he would be smart to “eat the best first” any chance he got.

Comfort foods help make life enjoyable. 

Strategy: Don’t deprive yourself. Keep the comfort foods, but eat them in smaller amounts. Learn to start pairing healthier foods with positive events. Also, instead of a huge sundae, opt for a smaller bowl of ice cream with fresh strawberries. (Remember: mindless margin)

Nutritional Gatekeepers

Most of us have the illusion that we’re the master and commander of our food choices, but we are wrong. Many of these choices are habits. Some we inherited and others were knowingly or unknowingly condition by our parents and the food tools (e.g. eating veggies to get dessert, good grades = fast food, etc.) they used.


  • The more foods you expose your child to, the more nutritionally well-rounded he or she will become.
  • Use the Half-Plate Rule. Vegetable should make up half of your (and your child’s) plate.
  • Make serving sizes official. Put snacks into baggies or Tuppeware and hide the box or package they came in.

Fast-Food Fever

We are hardwired to love the taste of fat, salt, and sugar. Fatty foods gave our ancestors the calorie reserves to weather food shortages. Salt helped them retain water and avoid dehydration. Sugar helped them distinguish sweet edible berries from the sour poisonous ones.

Strategy: Beware of the health halo. When you add cheese, mayo, chips and cookies to your Subway order, the calories add up quickly. Either think small or split a big combo order.

Mindlessly Eating Better

Many people blame government subsidies to agriculture, supersizing food companies and schools. Others blame inactivity encouraged by cars, desk jobs and gaming. But, with a little individual responsibility, we can re-engineer our person food environment to help us an our families eat better.

Your body and mind will fight against deprivation diets that cut our daily calorie intake from 2,000 to 1,200 a day, but they don’t really notice a 100-200 calorie difference.

Each chapter in Mindless Eating suggests small adjustments you can make to your eating environment to eliminate an extra 100 calories here or there. This enables you to choose changes are specifically relevant to you (e.g. No potato chips unless I’ve exercised that day).  If we make three small, 100-calorie changes, by the end of the year we’ll be as much as 30 pounds lighter than if we didn’t make them.

Losing weight should not be a sweaty, painful sprint. It can be a slow, steady walk that begins with removing unwanted eating cues and rearranging your home office, and eating habits so they work for you and your family rather than against you. The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.


This blog started primarily as a marketing blog, but now features much more about work/life, social psychology, health and happiness. We also explore top performers (authors, entrepreneurs, business leaders and more) and dissect what we can take away to become top performers in our own work and personal lives.

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