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Centre for Public Health in Economics and Business

Faculty of Economics and Business
Events Seminars

November 2016 - Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions to Everyday Life

Brian Wansink
Brian Wansink

Retrospect of the seminar

Friday November 19, Brian Wansink gave a very inspirational talk about the things we can do in our environments to nudge us towards healthier options when it comes to our diet. The underlying theory is that it is easier to change our environment than it is to change our mind and Brian used examples from his food studies to show this is the case.

Brians talk was focused on research into a few questions, the first of which was: "do we know what we like?" Research shows that our expectations regarding what we are going to taste have a very strong influence on our appreciation of food. So much so that blindfolded participants who thought they were in an experiment to decide which of two strawberry yoghurts was tasting the most like real strawberries had no trouble deciding between the two, but failed to noticed that they were actually eating yoghurt with chocolate sauce. In another example Brian showed us that if you provide people who are visiting a restaurant with complimentary 2 dollar wine – but make half of the people think it is very nice wine (by changing the label on the bottle) – not only do they appreciate the wine more than the group who did not get the "fancy" wine; they rated the entire dinner experience much better and were more likely to indicate they would return to the restaurant some time. So, when we expect something good, we appreciated it more. Even changing the name of food on a menu list works; simply add adjectives like 'succulent Italian' to your 'seafood filet' and people will not only be seduced to buy it more often but also indicate they think the chef has had significantly more years of training in Mediterranean countries.

A second questions was: "Do we know why we do what we do?" It turns out: … not really. Several studies show that when we visit buffets or canteens we make lots of decisions without thinking about them. We can make simple changes in the environment that influence those decisions without people realizing. For example, apples will be sold a lot more often in school canteens when they are placed in an attractive, beautiful bowl, that is positioned in a lighted position in the middle of the bench. Likewise, if you want to reduce the number of sugary beverages sold, the way to do this is 'hide' them behind water and milk – so that people have to reach out and make an effort to grab the sugary drinks. Even better: store them behind the counter so that people have to ask waiters for them. In addition, make it seem very normal for people to drink water (have lots of water bottles in full view and reach). So, making healthy food more attractive, more convenient and more normal by simply changing the environment and lay-out of places (rather than changing the foods or food selection) works.

Brian translates this research into practice by (amongst others) working with the industry (e.g. ambitious managers and restaurant owners and so on) to create win-win situations. Examples of this: advice on how to lay out your buffet so that people will likely eat a little less, and the development of scorecards for managers to see how high they can score on the 100-point scorecard to help consumers might be right choices and therefore have a competitive advantage over others.

The seminar was concluded with drinks and some healthy snacks!


It’s easier to change your food environment than to change your mind. My research is about changing your food environment – your food radius – so that you, your kids, and even your neighbors eat less and eat better. There are simple actions you can take to become permanently slimmer without really working at it. And you can get others to help.

We’re all mindless eaters. We make more than 200 subconscious food choices every day – soup or salad, little or a lot, finish it or leave it, and so on. We’re nudged more by our environment and things like 100-calorie packs than by our deliberate choices. But most of these nudges – the size of our cereal bowl, the distance of the candy dish, the color of our plates – nudge us to eat too much.

Even though I was the White House appointee in charge of the USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines and even though I am the immediate President of the Society for Nutrition Education and Behavior, I’m not a huge believer in the effectiveness of nutrition education.  Most people can pass the nutrition quiz; they know an apple’s better than a Snickers bar. But when they turn their back to snack, it’s not the apple. The answer is to change our food environment – it’s easier to change our food environment than our mind. As long as we change it in ways that help us to mindlessly eat better, we can make the changes once and then forget about them.

This might be hard for you to believe at first. It was just as hard for the Nabisco execs to believe the 100-calorie pack would succeed as well as it did. I know these small changes can work because my Lab has spent the past quarter century proving it in scientific study after study. I’ve seen it work for people in homes, restaurants, grocery stores, school, and where they work. Do you eat lunch at your desk, request a booth at the restaurant dinner, shop down grocery Aisle 2 after you buy your vegetables, and then come home through the kitchen door? Even if you did only the last of these, our studies show you probably weigh seven pounds more than your neighbor who doesn’t.

The easiest, quickest, and most natural way to reverse weight gain in ourselves, our families, and our country is to work with human nature and not against it. Although willpower won’t conquer our eating habits. There are a lot of small, innovative, and proven solutions from psychology and behavioral economics will help make us become slim by design.

That’s what this presentation is about. It’s about the easy actions that changes places – it’s about taking small actions in the five places that booby-trap most of our eating: our home, our office, our favorite restaurants, our corner grocery store, and our child’s school lunchroom. Best yet, anybody from anywhere and from any background can make these changes. All they need to know is how to do it, and how to ask the people and places around us to help. These are the easy actions that can make the people and places in our neighborhood more slim, hopeful, and happy.

Biography Brain Wansink, PhD.

Brian Wansink is the John Dyson Professor of Marketing and the Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab in the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. He is the lead author of over 200 academic articles and books on eating behavior, including the best-selling Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (2006) along with Marketing Nutrition (2005), Asking Questions (2004), and Consumer Panels (2002).

He earned his Ph.D. in Consumer Behavior at Stanford (1990) and was marketing professor at the Amos Tuck School at Dartmouth College (1990–1994), the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam (1994–1995), and the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania (1995–1997). He was the Julian Simon Faculty Scholar and Professor of Marketing, Nutritional Sciences and Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign (1997–2005). After that, he moved to Cornell University as the John Dyson Endowed Chair at the Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

Wansink’s award-winning academic research on eating behavior, behavioral economics, and behavior change has been published in the world’s top marketing, medical, and nutrition journals. It contributed to the introduction of smaller “100 calorie” packages (to prevent overeating), the use of taller glasses in bars (to prevent the overpouring of alcohol), the use of elaborate names and mouth-watering descriptions in many chain restaurant menus (to improve enjoyment of the food), and the removal of 500 million calories from restaurants each year (via Unilever’s Seductive Nutrition program). These insights have been presented, translated, reported, and featured in television documentaries on every continent but Antarctica.

From 2007-2009 Wansink was granted a leave-of-absence from Cornell to accept a White House appointment as Executive Director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the Federal agency in charge of developing 2010 Dietary Guidelines and promoting the Food Guide Pyramid.

As the Director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, Dr. Wansink and his team focus on developing and disseminating transforming solutions that help people eat better. The lab’s research has driven the creation of the Smarter Lunchrooms Movement and the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs (BEN) – two programs devoted to the funding, conduction, and dissemination of research concerning children’s health.

Last modified:19 May 2022 4.55 p.m.
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