April 18, 2007

Prof Contributes to PBS Show on Obesity

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On April 11 the Public Broadcasting Service aired a television program entitled “Fat: What No One is Telling You.” Cornell’s very own Prof. Brian Wansink, applied economics and management, and author of the book Mindless Eating, appeared on the documentary to help discuss the current epidemic of American obesity. Wansink, along with Dr. Lee Kaplan of Harvard University Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, shed new light on the struggles of weight control that few people outside of the medical profession are aware of.

Wansink believes that psychological factors make our unconscious mind choose to eat more food than we actually need. Studies he has conducted at the Food Brand Laboratory at Cornell, have shown that people make up to 250 decisions about food everyday. Whether it be conscious choices about what cereal to have in the morning for breakfast, or subconscious decisions like the choice between skim or whole milk on the cereal, or the addition of sugar.

In Mindless Eating, Wansink identifies and explains many of the food decisions we make daily. He believes that being conscious of their effects is the first step to ensuring a person’s lifestyle consists of healthy eating choices.

After performing hundreds of studies on thousands of people, the biggest surprise Wansink has found in his research is that “almost nobody is willing to believe that they are influenced by their environment. We all want to believe we are too smart to be influenced by the lighting in a room, or what the person across the table is doing. And that’s why these cues are so dangerous to our diet.”

Emily Caras ’10, a nutrition major, agrees.

“It is really difficult, especially in college, to make appropriate decisions about food. There are so many temptations, it would be great to be able to understand why we choose to eat what we do and learn how to make better nutritional decision,” Caras said.

According to the PBS’ website, the service created the show to “explore the myriad psychological, physiological and environmental factors that make it so tough to shed pounds and keep them off.”

The site also stated, “This film also explains our psychological response to food, and shows how external pressures, such as oversized restaurant portions and the unending barrage of food advertisements, make fighting fat so difficult, both on personal and national levels.”

The film features three personal narratives that exemplify the struggle some Americans face with their weight. Rosie Dehli, a Minnesota grandmother fights to get fit enough to play with her grandchild; Mary Dimino, an actress and comedian from New York City, who used to be obese, now works hard to lose pounds and stay healthy. Rocky Tayeh, a teenager from Brooklyn who, despite reactions from his hesitant family and friends, decided to undergo Lap-Band surgery.

The common thread among all these victims of obesity is what Wansink has termed “mindless eating.”

“Most of us don’t overeat because we’re hungry. We overeat 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,” Wansink said.