It is a truth universally acknowledged that a writer in possession of a good premise must be in want of a functioning brain with which to execute it. Said brain is best nourished by blood pumped by a healthy heart contained within a healthy body, yes? Unfortunately, we Westerners live in an environment which discourages activity and encourages overeating. Indeed, some have gone so far as it label it “toxic”. The result? More than 70% of us are losing the battle to stay trim and fit.
On WU we’ve had several conversations about staying active and reducing sitting time. (Don’t Take Author Obesity Sitting Down  and Becoming a Stand-up Writer .) That’s excellent. Unfortunately, it’s also insufficient. It takes me 15 minutes to consume a grande Carmel Macchiato with soy milk, but 1 hour and 10 minutes of brisk walking to work it off.
In the hierarchy of lifestyle medicine, this is why diet is proclaimed king to exercise’s queen.
Hope for Science-based, Simple Solutions
We all know that diets don’t work. We can talk about the science of this in another post, but willpower is a finite and easily exhausted resource. Turns out it takes as little as 15 minutes of mental effort to diminish the brain’s supply of glucose, thus undermining the part of the brain which weighs the desires of our future self against the present-day temptation.
Nor does it help to frame food choices as a moral decision (i.e. apples = good, chocolate bars = bad). If we do, it’s not long before we:
1) brew an outright home-grown rebellion or
2) deal with the Healthy Halo Effect—having made the morally superior choice to eat a salad, we feel entitled to eat the burger and cookie, thus consuming more calories than we would have otherwise done, all while living in denial about the outcome.
So if white-knuckling doesn’t work, and morality-based decisions backfire, what can move us forward?
If only it was possible to tweak our environment so that healthful food choices could be made by default. If only there was a research team dedicated to disseminating science-based recommendations on how to mindlessly reduce caloric intake on an incremental basis.
Happily, there is such a group. But before we pay them a quick visit, care to take a brief quiz on your food-environment literacy?
- The maximum size of my dinner plate should be ___ inches.
- Assuming two glasses have the same volumetric capacity, which shape encourages me to pour less liquid: short and wide, or tall and skinny?
- What object should be given a prominent place on my kitchen counter?
- True or false: When asked to estimate the calories contained within a specific meal, heavy participants are less accurate than their skinnier counterparts?
- In a kitchen designed to facilitate slimness, the freezer will be in which position on the fridge: top, side, or bottom?
- My fridge should contain no more than ___ juices or soft drinks (diet or regular) or energy drinks in single-serving containers.
- On average we control what percent of our family’s nutrition?
- What item should be placed in the front center of a breakfast cupboard?
- True or false: When it comes to measuring out food portions, food researchers and professional cooks—the experts—are able to compensate for cues like bowl size, spoon size, etc.
What Is in the Drinking Water of Upstate New York?
Tucked into the small town of Ithaca, New York, population 110,000, lies Cornell University. It houses not one but two food research giants.
The first I’ll mention only briefly. For the science behind what to put on your appropriately-sized plate, read The China Study , by Thomas Campbell & T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D. It’s the largest study ever conducted on the relationship between food and health. (Hint: the science points clearly to the benefits of a whole-foods plant-based diet.) Or check out Campbell’s website, Nutrition Studies .
The second is the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, run by Brian Wansink, Ph.D. Dubbed the Sherlock Holmes of food, his tools are considerably odder than a magnifying glass: scent-permeated dishes, hidden scales, hidden cameras, refilling soup bowls, test restaurants, test kitchens, etc. His mission? To uncover the psychology behind food behavior.
According to Wansink, the average person makes more than 200 decisions about food every day and most of these are made unconsciously. He says:
Everyone—every single one of us—eats how much we eat largely because of what’s around us. We overeat not because of hunger but because of family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers. This list is almost as endless as it’s invisible.
Wansink and team have spent the last several decades deconstructing these subterranean clues. They’ve disseminated their research in numerous peer-reviewed studies and commercial publications, serving consumers and industry. In many instances, the information helps craft solutions that are wins for both. For instance, he was behind the invention of the 100-calorie packs; they give consumers a “pause button” during consumption, objectively decreasing calorie intake, and allow food manufacturers to sell us less food at higher margins.
If you struggle to maintain an ideal weight, as I do, consider checking out the following references connected to his work. I recommend them because they:
- help you engineer your environment for success, providing a range of solutions from the incredibly simple and cheap to the challenging and expensive. An example of one tip: when faced with a calorie-dense food, avoid variety in presentation. As the variety increases, so will your consumption. (e.g. If given M & Ms with 10 color variations, participants mindlessly consume 77% more than their 7-variety counterparts.) When trying to encourage the consumption of healthful food, the converse is true.
- help you understand and guard against the cues which engineer excessive eating.
- take the issue of morality out of weight struggles and reduce it to a mechanistic, manageable approach.
Resources for Re-engineering Your Food Environment
- Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think —Brian Wansink, Ph.D. An accessible and practical read which primarily focuses on changing your home environment.
- Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Home, School, Grocery Stores, Restaurants, and More —Brian Wansink. Extends the work in Mindless Eating to other settings and provides a checklist of practical steps which you can use to document your baseline environment and your improvement. The section on food-grazing, or working from home, will be particularly relevant to writers.
- For a brief introduction to the material in his books, plus worksheets and teaching guides, check out the Mindless Eating website .
Answers to the quiz
- 9-10 inches.
- Tall and narrow. This simple change will reduce your calorie consumption from beverages by 30%. For best results, keep the glasses less than 12 ounces unless serving water, in which case glasses should be 16 ounces or more.
- A fruit bowl—should contain 2 or more fruits and be located within 2 feet of the most common pathway in the kitchen.
- False—whether male or female, old or young, trim or challenged, all people underestimated their food intake. As food portions increase, so do the margins of error in all groups. To quote Wansink: “It is ‘meal size,’ not ‘people size,’ that determines how accurate we’ll be at estimating how many calories we’ve eaten. That Popsicle-stick skinny person eating a 2,000-calorie Thanksgiving dinner will underestimate how much he’s eaten by just as much as the heavy person eating a 2,000-calorie pizza dinner. The trouble is that the heavy person tends to eat a whole lot more large meals.”
- The bottom.
- No more than 1 serving per household inhabitant.
- Oatmeal of any variety.
- False! Nobody is immune to these cues, though nobody believes they are influenced by them, either.
If our food environment has the subliminal ability to shape our shape, might our writing environment have the capacity to shape our word count? There’s no reason why we can’t take the same investigative spirit exhibited by Wansink and apply it to our writing routine. We could suss out less obvious factors than whether we’ve started the day with our internet blocker engaged.
For instance, does it make a difference if you write in a sunny room versus one lit only by the computer and desk lamp? What if you write in your bathrobe versus when you’re dressed? If you’re frustrated with your productivity, why not become a student of your life?
What say you, Unboxeders? Do these resources interest you? Have you reverse-engineered your writing life? If so, what surprising discoveries did you make about hidden hinderers versus hidden enhancers? How did you do in the food quiz?