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Mind over platter

Turning off your brain easiest way to overeat, Cornell University prof says

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Chris Cortopassi had to laugh.

She was attending a Mindless Eating seminar during the TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly) convention called International Recognition Days at the Milwaukee Hilton recently when she had to tell the guest speaker a story.

She had made herself a sandwich at home, took a bite, set it down on the counter and then went off to do something around the house. She remembers going back for one more bite.

After that, she came back and stared at that empty plate. Did she eat the whole thing?

Or did her dog, a lab/German Shephard mix, slink off with a little treat?

"I really don't have a clue," Cortopassi said.

Eating while on the run, in front of TV or while multitasking -- they're just a few of the many little distractions that can lead to overeating. That's one of several points that Brian Wansink made during his one-hour presentation to a standing-room only audience.

He makes the argument that with a few simple steps and strategies -- that don't involve counting calories or killer workouts -- we will cut back on how much we eat without a whole lot of thought about it.

His book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, is due to be released Sept. 23, and with it he hopes to start a movement that gets us to look at our home environment and our public places such as stores, schools and restaurants and how food is presented in those places.

"It's a whole lot easier to change the cues than to try to muscle through them with willpower," Wansink said.

That means looking at the size of the plate that we stack the food on, and where we put the food in the first place.

He started with what he called a myth: People believe the size of the plate or dish doesn't influence how much we eat. But, he said if we have a 25 cm (10-inch) plate, we put on about 100 g (four ounces) of pasta. With a 30 cm (12-inch) plate we add 22 per cent more.

"And if it's going on your plate, it's going in your tummy," he said.

He tested this by asking 150 Chicagoans how they know when they are full.

The No. 1 answer was, "When my plate is empty."

The No. 2 answer was, "When the TV show I am watching is over."

And that's another issue. What are we doing while we are eating? Apparently, too many of us are watching TV, which takes our attention off of eating, which may cause us to ignore the signals of like, "Hey! We're all full here."

"All these external cues push us to overeating," Wansink said.

His solutions are easy. He says we have to change our immediate environment with smaller plates, bowls and the skinny wine glasses. Good luck with that, by the way; have you shopped lately? Dinner dishes look like Thanksgiving turkey platters.

Also, Wansink said we should eat only in the kitchen or the dining room.

The results from people who tried these simple steps did not yield big transformations, he said, but they had a ripple effect. The people who lost weight and gave their testimonials in his book had success, he said, because "they made one small change at a time that they could keep consistently."

Go to the website Slim by Design and you'll see the suggested changes for several "zones." The school cafeteria area is really interesting, but the website also allows you to test your own home environment to see if it is helping or hindering a healthy eating environment.

Here's their questionnaire:

-- Are salad and vegetables served first?

-- Is main dish pre-plated and served from the stove or counter (where you have to make an effort to get up and get seconds)?

-- Are your dinner plates 22.5-25 cm (nine to 10 inches) wide?

-- Are you eating while sitting at a table with the TV turned off?

-- Is the biggest soft drink container in your refrigerator less than a litre?

-- Are bulk foods and snacks stored in individual-serving bags?

-- Are pre-cut fruits and vegetables placed on your middle refrigerator shelf?

-- Do you use tall, thin drinking glasses?

-- Are your snacks kept in one inconveniently-placed cupboard?

-- Is the only item on your kitchen counter a fruit bowl?

You can probably tell right now, that the more you answer "yes," the better.

He had some other crazy little mind-benders. For instance, two groups of people took a walk. One was described as a scenic walk and it was, in fact, in a nice setting. The other walk was the same distance but it was just labelled as exercise. Well, the exercise walkers ate a meal and had 10 per cent less of the salad and 35 per cent more dessert than the scenic strollers.

The main idea behind all of this is not to insult our intelligence, he assured us.

Wansink, a professor of consumer behaviour at Cornell University, seems to have a healthy respect for all the visual clues our brain tends to tell our stomachs, and he wants to help us at home, school and even places like grocery stores and restaurants to ease up on those messages -- or navigate through them. He's a former executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. He's already written Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (2006).

Cortopassi, one of 1,200 attendees at the convention, said she got a lot of new ideas to add to her well-honed personal strategies. She already tells the waiter to not even bring the darn rolls before the meal -- taking control of the environment at her table. She keeps the potato chips on top of the fridge -- the one in the garage, so it's out of sight.

"If it's out there, I don't think about it," she said.

Little steps like that have allowed her to lose and keep off 40 pounds, which she put on after the death of her son. The tragedy was so painful she left her Chicago-area home and relocated to Simi Valley, Calif.

She said she found encouragement from leaders and members of TOPS and their other group, KOPS (Keep Off Pounds Sensibly).

"I really like the support," she said. "This is a non-profit organization, but TOPS people care about and support each other, and we see the success."

-- Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 2, 2014 C1

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