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Your Willpower Won’t Help You Lose Weight, You Need To Change Your Environment

Trick yourself into weight loss by putting fruit and vegetables front and center in the kitchen.

Your Willpower Won’t Help You Lose Weight, You Need To Change Your Environment
[Top photo: Flickr user E'Lisa Campbell]

January is the month of good intentions. We start the year trying to lose weight, eat more healthily, and go to the gym more regularly. Many of us finish it by following familiar habits: too much beer and ice-cream.

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Why? Brian Wansink says we rely too much on willpower to change our ways and too little on what he calls “slim by design.” If we want to really to stay in shape, he says, we need to change the environment around us, not just cajole ourselves into acting differently.

Africa Studio via Shutterstock

“The trouble with trying to slim by willpower is that it’s a full-time job, and if you lose focus, it sets us back,” he says. “With slim-by-design, mostly we change things once and we don’t have to think about things again. You don’t need to have that reoccurring reminder that you need to behave. You just put the food-bowl out and, hey, you start eating more fruit.”

That last sentence might sound trite. But Wansink, the director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, has been studying the science of fruit bowls for more than 25 years. He’s proven that the positioning of food–whether it’s hidden away or staring at us on a counter–changes how we respond to it.

Wansink’s new book, Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions, contains hundreds of ideas for changing our food environment, including our kitchens, restaurants, supermarkets, office canteens and school lunchrooms. It’s a how-to manual for maximizing our ability to do what we want, and know, we should do, and for limiting what’s harmful to us.

For example, Wansink recommends we make kitchens less “loungeable,” with tempting foods out of sight, and cooking equipment easily available. “You’re three times more likely to eat the first food you see in the cupboard than the fifth one,” he writes. Putting fruits and vegetables in the middle of the fridge rather than in the bottom drawer raises the chances we’ll eat them. “They might keep longer in the crisper, but the goal is to eat them, not compost them,” he adds.

Wansink suggests cutting fruit into plastic bags and placing it at eye-level, painting kitchens a “Mama Bear” color (not too bright, not too dark), separating the kitchen from the dining room, and placing a blender on the counter so you can always make up a smoothie. Tall wine glasses are better than wide ones, he says. One study showed drinkers pour 12% less wine into taller white wineglasses that hold 10 ounces than we pour into wider red wineglasses with the same capacity. Smaller plates and serving spoons, and soft lights, also help reduce consumption.

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Wansink’s research shows that people eat differently in restaurants depending on where they sit. Diners near the window take fewer drinks and more side salads. People at the bar order more chicken wings. Those in the booths order more BBQ ribs and desserts. One of the most interesting studies looks at an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet. People tend to eat less when they face away from the food, when the owner puts a screen between the hotplates and diners, and when people are given chopsticks as well as forks, he finds.

He insists that such redesigns aren’t a recipe for less profits. In the case of the buffet owners, they can actually make more money by getting people to eat less; in other cases, the impact is revenue neutral. Wansink worked with one truck stop in Minnesota that cut its portion sizes in half and charged half as much. Within three months, it sold more entrees, more side salads and check averages increased.

Behavioral approaches, or “nudges,” have become popular in school lunchrooms (see here). But Wansink says there’s also widespread resistance to his ideas among dietitians and physicians who continue to drill us with information we already know.

“In reality, most people know that an apple is better for them than a cookie. What we need isn’t factual information. It’s behavioral tools people can use to change what they select without knowing it’s good or bad for them,” he says.

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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