Stop fighting it! You know you're going to do it. Don't you see that luscious, Macadamia-nut-chocolate-chip-brownie-fudge-topped ooey, gooey cookie right there? I know you do. Yep, it's just a matter of time before that little sugar-packed morsel pops in your mouth and fluffs out your belly. According to some food experts, including Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating and head of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, this is not far from the truth.
"We believe we have all the free will in the world. We believe we overeat if the food is good or if we're really hungry. In reality, those are two of the last things that determine how much we eat," he said.
Contrary to popular opinion, Wansink, an expert on human eating behavior, believes that visibility and convenience determine more of our eating habits than how delicious the food is, or how hungry we feel. It's a matter of convenience and repetitive decision-making. In other words, if food is sitting in front of us (staring at us, begging us to come over), we're going to eat it. If it's not in our visual range, we're less likely to go and get it.
"Something that's very visible, every time we see it we have to make a decision. "Do I want to eat that? Do I not want to eat that?"...We can say no twenty-seven times, but if it's visible, the twenty-eighth or twenty-ninth time, we start saying, "Maybe." By time thirty, thirty-one, we start saying, "What the heck? I'm hungry."
In one of Wansink's many experiments, he divided 150 subjects into groups of fifty. The members of the first group were each given a canister of potato chips with every third chip dyed red. The second group received a similar canister with every fourteenth chip dyed red. The third group received containers free of dyed food. On average, the first group ate ten chips apiece; the second group ate fifteen; and the third group ate twenty-three chips per person.
Wansink rationalized that the red chips provided a "pause point," an interruption forcing the eater to ask whether he or she really wants to go on eating, or quit. Without pause points, we seem to just keep going.
In another experiment, he placed jars of chocolate pieces in office workers' cubicles and then moved the jar six feet away one month later. On average, workers ate five more pieces a day, or an extra 125 calories, when the candy was in reach. The old saying, "Out of sight, out of mind," seems to be particularly poignant when it comes to munching habits.
Such experiments could provide vital knowledge for efforts determined to conquer the American obesity epidemic. Texas is a state that may want to pay particular attention. In 2006, sixty-two percent of Texas adults were overweight or obese. If trends continue, by 2040, twenty million Texans will fit into that category, and the annual costs associated with the condition will spike to nearly $40 billion. These expenses include direct healthcare costs -- such as medicine, doctors' visits, and hospital stays -- as well as indirect costs, such as loss of productivity and wages due to illness and death. Health insurance companies are already in a quandary as to how to cover the condition. Should bariatric surgeries be approved by insurance, for instance? Indeed, even from a strictly business perspective, such treatments (if proven effective) may, in fact, be cheaper than not providing them. What is it that will bring this situation under control?
Between 2004 and 2006, 26.3% of Texans were obese, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. Children and adolescents, too, are at greater risk; studies in Dallas, Houston, Austin, and the rest of the state reveal that twenty-nine percent of secondary school students are either overweight, or at risk of becoming so. Those statistics are only a little higher than the percentage of those left uninsured in the state, at just over twenty-five percent.
Could the two be linked? While studies have not said so directly, there is a chance lack of insurance could be a factor, especially once one considers that obesity risk is higher in minority groups, men, and middle-aged adults, as reported by the Texas Department of State Health Services Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). Minorities are more likely to be poor, and with less money usually comes less insurance. The Commonwealth Fund released a report this year directly linking lack of health insurance with less access to healthcare. Those who are obese, living without health coverage, then, may be less likely to receive the care that may bring their condition under control. If unhealthy habits associated with obesity extend into the next generation, which is what we are seeing now, then the problem becomes even more amplified.
While obesity is attributed to many factors, including unhealthy lifestyle and unfortunate genetics, Wansink believes there are simpler measures we can take, at least for the moment, that will help us eat healthier and eat less. Accept that you are going to give into temptation, he says, and make accommodations. We're likely to eat more when food is sitting in front of us and when we have a plethora of it. Having our meals "family style," with all the serving bowls on the table, eating directly from the carton or bag, serving our meals on a bigger plate or from a larger container, and eating in front of the television, in the car, or with friends, all increase the amount we take in. Put unhealthy items out of reach, healthy ones within visual range, and serve from smaller containers.
"When it comes down to it, we're efficient people. We want something that's convenient," he said. "And if it's fruit or vegetables that's a whole lot more convenient than that cake...in the freezer, guess what's for snack today? Fruits and vegetables."
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