Mindless Eating

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Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think
1. Mindless Eating Cover - Brian Wansink.jpg
Author Brian Wansink

Available in Portuguese, Danish, Japanese, Dutch, Chinese, German, Hebrew,

Korean, Russian, and Italian
Country United States
Language English
Genre Psychology, Health & Nutrition, Diet, Social Trends
Publisher Bantam Dell
Publication date
October 17, 2006
Media type Hardback & Audio CD Recording
Pages 276 p. (hardback edition), 304 p. (paperback edition)
ISBN 0-553-80434-0 (Hardback), ISBN 0-553-38448-1 (Paperback), ISBN 0-7393-4037-9 (audio recording)
OCLC 69734639
616.85/260651 22
LC Class RC552.C65 W36 2006

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think is a nonfiction book by Cornell University consumer behavior professor Brian Wansink. Based upon award-winning research discoveries at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, the book was cited by the National Action Against Obesity as being a 2006 hero in America's fight against obesity.[1]

The book shows how food psychology and the food environment influence what, how much, and when people eat. It also shows how many of the cues in this environment can alter food choice, leading people to eat less and enjoy food more. The science is based on a series of studies in labs, restaurants, homes, movie theaters, diners, and malls that Wansink has conducted as director of the Food and Brand Lab.[2]

Chapter list[edit]

  1. The Mindless Margin
  2. The Forgotten Food
  3. Surveying the Tablescape
  4. The Hidden Persuaders
  5. Mindless Eating Scripts
  6. The Name Game
  7. Comfort Food for Thought
  8. Nutritional Gatekeepers
  9. Fast Food Fever
  10. Mindlessly Eating Better


The phrase "mindless eating" refers to the empirical finding that people make nearly 20 times more daily decisions about food than they are aware of (an average of around 200 each day).[3] As a result, they can be easily influenced by small cues around them such as people, packages, dinnerware, product names, labels, lights, smells, distractions, and containers, among other things.

In contrast to a physiological understanding of hunger, Mindless Eating argues that much of one’s hunger is psychologically determined. People are not well enough calibrated to know when they are full and even when they are necessarily hungry.[4] As a result, they are subtly and unknowingly influenced by their environment when determining when to eat and how much to eat.


Instead of focusing on the macro-food environment (see Food Fight (Brownell & Horgen, 2003) and Food Politics (Nestle, 2002)), Mindless Eating focuses on the micro-environment – one’s home and one’s workplace. These are the environments that consumers directly influence on the daily basis by where they store food, where they place food, how they serve food, when they eat snacks.[5] The studies in the book show how seemingly inconsequential decisions, such as what cupboard a food comes from to the size of plate and lighting in the room, will influence how much of that food is served and eaten.

The food industry[edit]

A number of the findings described in Mindless Eating, when originally published as academic articles, have been used by the food industry to develop packaging and serving options aimed at profitably encouraging segments of consumers to consume less.[6] The New York Times reported that the findings on how package size contributed to the introduction of the commonly found "100-calorie packs",[7] and his work on glass shape and alcohol pouring influenced bars to use taller glasses to limit overpouring.[8][9]

In contrast to viewpoints that are critical of the food industry (see Supersize Me and Fast Food Nation), Mindless Eating emphasizes the most immediate and effective changes that can be made to the obesigenic society are the changes people can make at home. Although the food industry, government, and even school lunch program have made food convenient and inexpensive, the Nutritional Gatekeeper in the home is still shown to influence an estimated 72% of what a family eats inside and outside the home.[10]

The solution[edit]

The encouraging premise behind Mindless Eating is that the obesigenic environment that people have set up for themselves in their homes and at work can be reversed. Just as this environment has led many people to slowly gain weight, it can be re-engineered to help them mindlessly lose weight. Consuming 200 fewer calories a day would lead a person to weigh approximately 9 kilograms (20 lbs) less in a year than they otherwise would. The first sentence and the last sentence of the book are, "The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on."

Instead of deprivation dieting, Mindless Eating recommends a person choose three small changes in their environment that would lead them to eat 200-300 fewer calories a day. These changes are best directed toward one of the five "diet danger zones" that a person finds most problematic at that time. In addition to suggesting research-based changes that have been effective in these five areas, Mindless Eating also explains how individualized changes based on food trade-offs and food rules can be useful in helping a person mindlessly eat less, without feeling either psychologically or physiologically deprived.

Mindless Eating Challenge[edit]

The Mindless Eating Challenge was an online healthy eating and weight loss program that focused on small, concrete changes in eating habits and eating environment.[11] Originally launched in January 2007 as the National Mindless Eating Challenge because it was only available in English, the program was renamed simply the Mindless Eating Challenge after the program was gained significant international participation.[12] The program was partially based on Dr. Brian Wansink's book, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More than We Think.[13] As one of a wide variety of online weight loss programs, the Mindless Eating Challenge was unique because it focused on small, concrete behavior changes instead of dieting.[14] Additionally, it was one of the first publicly availably online weight loss programs to publish weight loss results in a peer-reviewed medical journal.[15][16]

When the Mindless Eating Challenge first went online in January 2007,[17] participants were asked a series of questions about their habits, their willpower, and their behavior.[11] Based on their answers, participants were given three specific environmental or behavioral changes that were statistically correlated with weight loss for similar persons with their background.[18] After the month was over, they were resurveyed. Based on their answers and their success the prior month, three new change tips were provided for the next month.[19] Participants were provided a checklist [20] and encouraged to check off their adherence to the changes each day.

The purpose of the tips was to help people become aware of influences on their eating and establish new, healthier habits into their lifestyles without becoming overwhelmed.[19] The focus was on gradual lifestyle change process through small habit changes that could be maintained.


Weight loss outcomes were evaluated with a sub-sample of 2053 participants who signed up for the program between July 2007 and June 2009.[21] Although participant attrition was high (75% never returned to follow-up), those who stayed in the program at least three months and completed at least two follow-up surveys lost, on average, 1.8 lbs (1.0%) of their initial weight. Moreover, participants who reported consistent adherence (25+ days/month) to the suggested changes reported an average monthly weight loss of 2.0 lbs. The most commonly reported barriers for changes included holidays/vacations or other unusual circumstances, suggestions that were too situation-specific, overeating even with healthy foods, and emotional eating.[19]

The approach used by the Mindless Eating Challenge has been important in helping other programs evolve. Various insights have been incorporated in a wide range of other efforts to encourage weight loss and healthy eating. Some of these insights are currently the foundation of a 5-year grant by the National Institute of Health (SCALE—Small Changes and Large Effects) and a large scale community worksite intervention.[22]

Follow-up Work[edit]

Dr. Wansink created an additional body of work in 2014 and 2015 under a new brand 'Slim by Design'. Slim by Design is more action-oriented than Mindless Eating, and includes recent research. This new body of work includes a Slim by Design book, a course and iOS app that includes a 1-on-1 coach to help people apply these principles, and a website slimbydesign.org.


  1. ^ The NAAO Names 2006 Heroes and Villains in U.S. Fight Against Obesity
  2. ^ Cornell University Food and Brand Lab Archived 2007-01-16 at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ "Mindless Eating: The 200 Daily Decisions We Unknowingly Make," Brian Wansink and Jeffrey Sobal, Environment and Behavior (2007), 39:1, 106-123.
  4. ^ "Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues of Portion Size May Influence Intake," Brian Wansink, James E. Painter, and Jill North, Obesity Research (2005), 13:1 (January), 93-100.
  5. ^ "Environmental Factors that Increase the Food Intake and Consumption Volume of Unknowing Consumers," Brian Wansink, Annual Review of Nutrition (2004), Volume 24, 455-479.
  6. ^ "De-Marketing Obesity," Brian Wansink and Mike Huckabee, California Management Review (2005), 47:4 (Summer), 6-18.
  7. ^ The New York Times
  8. ^ "Can Package Size Accelerate Usage Volume?" Brian Wansink, Journal of Marketing (1996), Vol. 60:3 (July), 1-14.
  9. ^ Shape of Glass and Amount of Alcohol Poured: Comparative Study of Effect of Practice and Concentration," Brian Wansink and Keort van Ittersum, BMJ – British Medical Journal (2005), 331:7531 (December 24) 1512-1514.
  10. ^ "Nutritional Gatekeepers and the 72% Solution," Brian Wansink, Journal of the American Dietetic Association (2006), 106:9 (September), 1324-1327.
  11. ^ a b "Small Easy Changes Can Lead to Sustainable Weight Loss and Healthier Eating Habits," (2012) Science Daily (12-19-12) -- http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121219174324.htm.
  12. ^ http://toomuchonherplate.com/the-national-mindless-eating-challenge/
  13. ^ Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink, New York: Bantam Dell (2006).
  14. ^ "Mindless Eating and Healthy Heuristics for the Irrational," (2009) Brian Wansink, David R. Just, Collin R. Payne, American Economic Review 99:2 (May), 165-169.
  15. ^ http://www.news-medical.net/news/20121220/Small-consistent-changes-in-daily-eating-behavior-can-lead-to-sustainable-weight-loss.aspx
  16. ^ http://www.medicaldaily.com/articles/13602/20121220/mindful-eating-helps-weight-loss.htm
  17. ^ http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121219174324.htm/
  18. ^ Kaipainen, K.; Payne, C. R.; Wansink, B. (2012). "Mindless Eating Challenge: Retention, Weight Outcomes, and Barriers for Changes in a Public Web-Based Healthy Eating and Weight Loss Program". Journal of Medical Internet Research 14 (6): e168. doi:10.2196/jmir.2218
  19. ^ a b c Kaipainen, K.; Payne, C. R.; Wansink, B. (2012). "Mindless Eating Challenge: Retention, Weight Outcomes, and Barriers for Changes in a Public Web-Based Healthy Eating and Weight Loss Program". Journal of Medical Internet Research. 14 (6): e168. doi:10.2196/jmir.2218. 
  20. ^ http://www.mindlesseating.org/free_stuff.php
  21. ^ http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/12/121219174324.htm
  22. ^ "The Wichita 'One-Ton' Weight Loss Program: Community Weight Loss and the National Mindless Eating Challenge," (2011) Brian Wansink, Aner Tal, and Mitsuru Shimizu, FASEB Journal, 25:781.24

External links[edit]