This review was written for my college class "Psychology of Eating," 2016.
Elizabeth Parker, MS, RD
About the author
Dr. Brian Wansink, who has been called the “Sherlock Homes of eating behavior,”1 founded the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University in 1997. He was born in Iowa in 1960, and at the time of publication of this book (2007), he has created and lead over 250 studies in consumer behavior. Wansink has a PhD in Consumer Behavior from Stanford University, and has since taught marketing and consumer behavior at both Dartmouth and Cornell Universities. He is the recipient of numerous accolades including, “Humorous Ig Nobel Prize”, and was named “ABC World News Person of the Week” in January 20081. Current work includes, Executive Director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, promoter of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines, professor of Consumer Behavior at Cornell University, and most notably author of “Mindless Eating,” and Slim By Design.”1
Mindless Eating aims to share with the American population exactly what is influencing our food choices and eating habits through explaining research on consumer behavior. Dr. Wansink and his team of researchers have completed hundreds of studies on why people eat what they eat, and what influences how much we eat. Using easy-to-read, and entertaining anecdotes of his studies, Wansink share tips and strategies for “mindlessly” changing our food environment to promote better health and weight loss, without deprivation.
Chapter-By-Chapter Synopsis and Main Messages of Mindless Eating2
Chapter 1, The Mindless Margin: Wansink’s studies showed that we have a “mindless margin”2 of approximately 100 Calories more or less from our calorie needs that we do not really notice, and can lead to weight loss or gain. To make this easier, Wansink suggests serving yourself 20% less of most foods (food that you want to cut back on), and 20% more fruits and veggies than you normally would have.
Chapter 2, The Forgotten Food: Seeing evidence of how much you are eating in real time (for instance, leaving the bones from chicken wings you have eaten on your plate, or wrappers from candies in front of you) you are far more likely to eat less than if there was no evidence of what you ate. Since we eat with our eyes first, having large volumes of food (regardless of calorie density) works. Our stomach really has only three settings: starving/ could eat more/ stuffed; so we use external cues to stop eating instead of relying on hunger.
Chapter 3, Surveying the Tablescape: The size of food packages (how we buy or store food) has a direct influence on how much people eat. The larger the container the larger the serving size. This directly impacts the waistline. We drink more from short, wide, beverage glasses, and eat more from larger diameter plates or bowls, and more from larger serving scoops. This chapter also discusses why restriction-diets, such as Atkins and grapefruit diets, work through limiting variety of food options, making dieting “mindless” through “sensory specific satiety.” More options = more consumption.
Chapter 4, The Hidden Persuaders Around Us: We tend to eat more of what we premeditate or see before eating. If we know a food is there, we will think about it and be more likely to eat a larger amount than if we just happen upon the food. This can be helpful for choosing more healthy foods. Wansink suggests setting a bowl of fruit out where it is easily seen, and you will eat more fruit. Proximity to food is another trap for eating more. If food is easy to get to we will eat more than if the food is farther away/ harder to get to. Chapter 4 explains why bulk shopping causes weight gain - having more of the same food at your disposal means you eat more to get to “the right number”2 of items in the pantry. We can counteract this by “hiding the extras” of multi-packs in an opaque container, another room, or adding any level of difficulty. Some other tips from this chapter: Make a shopping list, and eat before you shop.
Chapter 5, Mindless Eating Scripts: We have “scripts” or habits when it comes to how and when we eat. These can be situational (like eating by the time on the clock), or influenced by others (taking more food until everyone at the table has finished). Watch how much and how fast your dining companions eat - we are easily swayed by them! Multitasking while eating (say, watching TV, reading, or driving) distracts us from our food and will lead to more mindless munching than if we were not multi-tasking. The longer the “distraction,” the more we eat. Another influencer in how fast we eat is ambiance. Lighting, music, sound level and other mood-settings influence our pace and consumption of food. Similarly, the scent of food can draw us in to purchase/eat food that we had not planned on eating. Temperature and time of year also influence our eating habits. When it is getting colder/is cold, we eat and drink more to stay warm. When it is warm we move more and drink more water to stay cool.
Chapter 6, The Name Game: We taste what we expect - based on visual cues such as colors and descriptions, how appetizing the food looks (or does not), presentation (including what it is served on), as well as our other senses. We also associate brand name with superiority.
Chapter 7, In The Mood For Comfort Food: A study done in favorite “comfort foods” showed a marked difference in male and female choices. Males choose more “hot meal” foods (like pasta) that evoked feeling of being taken care of, and females choose more “snacklike foods”2 like chocolate, not because they do not like the food the men mentioned, but because those foods made them think of the work of making the meal. Comfort foods tend to be associated with specific happy memories or traditions that supply positive emotions. In the same way, negative associations can cause dislike for foods. We also choose foods based on personality, as this chapter explains. Competition for food (knowing whether or not it will still be there later) influences our decision to “eat the best first, or save the best for last.”2 Youngest children or those from large families, thus set themselves up to eat the more calorically dense parts of the meal first (as opposed to veggies/ salad) and are more likely to gain weight.
Chapter 8, Nutritional Gatekeepers: Nutritional gatekeepers are the person(s) in the household that makes and buys most of the food - and they have the most influence over what we eat. Most often, those with “good cooks” in the house ate, and liked, more vegetables. This is due to veggies taking more work to prepare, and thus need a “cook.” Parents and caretakers influence children’s food preferences from very early on. Children are able to recognize facial expressions of love and disgust, and notice what the person making the face is eating. They use these associations to decide how they will feel about the food when offered it, and future behaviors around foods. Additionally, using creative names and associations for commonly disliked foods, increased children’s consumption when labeled “dinosaur trees,” as opposed to “broccoli.”
Chapter 9, Fast Food Fever: We are designed to seek out “safe foods” that have salt, sugar, and/or fat. It is no coincidence that restaurants, food companies, and even home chefs add these ingredients to food when they want diners to eat. Much of this chapter focuses on marketing and packaging done by food companies. Restaurants also use “health halos” to make us believe that, because they advertise healthy options, that all of their menu items are lower-calorie. By doing this the average diner is likely to add on sides, drinks, or dessert, because they thought they had eaten a “healthier” main dish. Low-fat options also have this health halo effect, and cause many to eat more calories than if they had been told it was the regular fat version. Another factor in how much we eat is the “serving” we are eating from. Where is the natural stopping point- with a single-serve package, or one “sleeve” of cookies? We are influenced by where there are built-in stopping points.
Chapter 10, Mindlessly Eating Better: Fighting an obesogenic culture is not about making huge changes, but eating “better” with do-able “mindless” strategies, laid out in chapter 10. Here Wansink gives strategies including, “food trade-offs,” “food policies,” and “the power of three [behavior changes].”2 These strategies are explained to help us break habits and, in an achievable way, mindlessly eat a little better.
Appendix A: Description, advantages, and disadvantages of popular diets (including this book).
Appendix B: Quick tips for “dieting danger zones”2.
Frequently Asked Questions.
The intended audience for this book is anyone who eats. We make hundreds of food options every day, so there is no one who would not find at least a small tidbit of helpful knowledge from this book. The main aim of book is to educate consumers on simple ways to make eating smarter easier.
Commentary & Evaluation
I enjoyed reading the quick, to-the-point, research abstracts throughout the book. The use of psychology in the explanations of study findings was especially informative, for example, how males and females chose different types of comfort foods based on what made them feel “pampered”2. Each chapter made specific points and ended with strategies, influenced by the studies discussed, for the reader to use; this dispelled the myth that you “can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” or an adult new eating habits.
Overall the strengths of the book included: easy to read format; promotion of slow, steady weight loss by changing just 100 Calories per day or ~10 lbs per year; simple tips to be more mindful of what you are eating and potential for weight loss; and solid research that is referenced in other periodicals, including Rowland and Splane’s Psychology of Eating.3 One example is the description of “sensory specific satiety” 2,3 referenced in both books, as well as our idea of what a portion size is, based on what is placed in front of us.3
Weaknesses of the book included: 3,500 Calories = 1 lb. Other research proves this is not necessarily true. Authors Herrin and Larkin make a specific point to show that “3,500 Calories = 1 pound myth”4. These eating disorder experts explain that mathematically 3,500 Calories seems correct, but taking into account body processes for making muscle, bone, and other tissues, 3,500 Calories is only an approximation, and not a hard rule of weight loss or gain.
I would recommend this book for most people. Wansink’s tips are easy to follow, and his research study descriptions are eye-opening. As a Registered Dietitian, I have shared verbal synopsis of some of his research with clients I am counseling (for weight loss), that make them re-evaluate how they are choosing their food. Several clients have bought the book, themselves, and reported finding it fascinating and helpful in restructuring how they store and plate food. The only people I might not recommend this book to those suffering from anorexia nervosa. This is because the book is structured more for weight loss and maintenance, and eating more “healthy” foods, which could trigger someone who is restricting intake.
Eating Disorders, A Guide to Medical Care and Complications, 2nd Edition. By Philip S. Mehler, M.D., and Arnold E. Andersen, M.D. This book was published in 2010 by John Hopkins University Press. The original edition was published in 1999. This review was written for "Nutrition Therapy for Eating Disorders" college paper (2016).
Authors Mehler and Andersen, are both medical doctors, and professors at Universities. Dr. Andersen is a board-certified psychiatrist who, with colleagues, has started programs for inpatient, PHP, outpatient diagnostic and continuing care for eating disorders. He attended medical school at Cornell, and has spent 15 years as faculty at John Hopkins Medical Institution. He has published research focusing on many aspects of eating disorders.
Dr. Mehler is a graduate of University of Colorado Medical School, and is now the Chief Medical Officer of Denver Health Medical Center. He is a Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS) and a professor at the University of Colorado Medical School. He is widely published, and is especially interested in research of patients with weights 30% or more below ideal body weight, and treatment of anorexia and bulimia nervosa.
The goal of Eating Disorders, A Guide To Medical Care and Complications, is to provide a single-source of most treatment recommendations for the medical treatment of patients presenting with an eating disorder. The authors provide a step-by-step approach: determining a diagnosis of an eating disorder, the purpose of the treatment team, medical evaluation, nutrition recommendations, specific complaints/ signs/ and symptoms patients present, special topics (including athletes and males with eating disorders), ethical conflicts, and information for non-medical educators. The authors use each chapter to give case studies and answer specific frequently-asked questions about the topic of the chapter in hopes to increase best treatment practices.
Eating Disorders, A Guide to Medical Care and Complications is a reference manual for both medical doctors seeing patients with eating disorders, as well as non-medical professionals (psychiatrists, psychologists, dietitians, nurses, sport coaches, and others who interact with individuals at risk of eating disorders). There are 15 chapters, plus an appendix, in this nearly 300 page book. I will go into more depth on the main messages from these chapters in the following paragraphs.
Chapter 1, “The Diagnosis and Treatment of Eating Disorders in Primary Care Medicine.” This chapter (as well as many parts of the book) emphasizes that eating disorders (ED) present in “many disguised forms” (p. 3) to clinicians, and that the diagnosis of an ED is not made by ruling-out every other possible issue. This chapter focuses on risk factors that increase chances of getting an eating disorder, as well as diagnostic factors to be assessing (including cultural value of thinness), and an overview of treatment modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Tables throughout the book give concise lists of things to look for (in this chapter, list of myths and facts about EDs, for example), questionnaires, and laboratory ranges.
Chapter 2, “Team Treatment, a Multidisciplinary Approach,” explains the other members of the treatment team, why different professionals are necessary (not just one clinician doing everything), and how to effectively communicate with the team. This chapter includes the registered dietitian (RD), but explains that the physician, nurse, or RD can do weight restoration and meal plans (more on my thoughts about this later). Chapter 2 also covers the levels of care, how to decide which level is appropriate, and when to change the level of care; as well as the details of treatment approaches, including “having fun.”
Chapter 3, “Medical Evaluation of Patients with Eating Disorders, an Overview,” discusses the role of the physician in assessing clinical signs and symptoms of patients with EDs. This includes which exams and lab tests are recommended for each specific type of ED, how to read them in the context of an ED, and when labs/exams need to be repeated. Lists of physical signs and complaints from patients are given, and differential diagnoses that an ED might present as. The authors again state, “The guiding principle is that a diagnosis of an eating disorder is not made by a rule-out approach of all possible medical disorders, but by confident determination of the presence of an eating disorder through screening questions and a brief mental status examination” (p. 70).
Chapter 4, “Nutritional Rehabilitation, Practical Guidelines for Refeeding Anorexia Nervosa Patients.” It is worth noting, that this is the only chapter on nutrition in the book, and it only focuses on very underweight anorexia nervosa patients – no other eating disorder diagnoses. The majority of the chapter, although short, focuses on refeeding syndrome and enteral/parenteral feeding modes, with help from the “dietician” (yes dietitian with a “c”). Good discussion of medical complications with refeeding accompanies this chapter.
Chapter 5, “Evaluation and Treatment of Electrolyte Abnormalities,” gives excellent information about lab values associated with EDs and what they mean in regards to malnutrition, and different methods of purging. Notes on treatment of abnormal labs are given.
Chapter 6, “Gastrointestinal Complaints.” This topic is of high interest to RDs that read this book. The etiology of several issues with malnutrition and binging or purging are explained, as to what the patient may complain of, and clinical evaluation is provided. The explanations given are great talking points with patients on how to treat their discomfort. For example, gastroparesis, or delayed emptying from the stomach to small intestine is common in restriction. It explains that patients will often complain of bloating, which is worsened with a high fiber diet. Treatment includes weight restoration, resuming eating, and limiting high fiber foods like legumes and bran.
Chapter 7, “Cardiac Abnormalities and Their Management.” It is well known that malnutrition can have horrific effects on the cardiovascular system including sudden death. This chapter explains vital signs, etiology, and when to order EKGs or other tests.
Chapter 8, “Osteoporosis and Gynecological Endocrinology.” Up until the DSM-V, amenorrhea was a diagnostic factor for anorexia nervosa. With the DSM-V it was removed, but it is still important to the health of the individual to understand the hormonal issues that occur with malnutrition. This chapter goes into great detail on reproductive hormones, bone density (including DEXA readings), % of body fat needed for normal menstruation (10%, for most women), hormonal therapy (contraindicated, for the most part), and nutrition for bone health.
Chapter 9, “General Endocrinology.” Beyond female reproductive hormones, there are many other potential endocrine issues with EDs. This chapter covers these hormones, such as cortisol, growth hormone, insulin-like growth factor, thyroid hormones, blood glucose, and more. Complications of diabetes with EDs is discussed here.
Chapter 10, “Oral and Dental Complications.” Dentists and dental hygienists are often the first to see patients with bulimia nervosa and can be an integral player in identifying these patients, who might not be noticed otherwise. These oral signs and symptoms of bulimia nervosa are listed with descriptions, and some treatment methods are given.
Chapter 11, “Athletes and Eating Disorders.” The book explains that many sports increase the risk of a person having an eating disorder, especially those that have a great desire for a specific body type or “making weight,” such as ballet, wrestling, rowing, running, and others. Female Athlete Triad, over-exercise, perfectionism in athletes, and performance anxiety are discussed, along with anabolic steroid complications. Treatment recommendations, and the “role of coaches in promoting or preventing eating disorders” (p. 191), are excellent sections in this chapter.
Chapter 12,”Males with Eating Disorders,” shows that males are often overlooked, and not treated differently than females with EDs. This chapter gives excellent insight into the differences with males, and “reverse anorexia” or the need for a “big, muscular body.” Insight into what males are most at risk, and why males diet are interesting points in this chapter.
Chapter 13, “Using Medical Information Psychotherapeutically.” The main point of this chapter is when, and how, to discuss medical information with the ED patient, to not cause fear or make it sound trivial.
Chapter 14, “Ethical Conflicts in the Care of Patients with Anorexia Nervosa,” covers modern biomedical ethics parameters, and how they apply specifically to treating patients with anorexia nervosa. This is of particular concern when a patient refuses recommended treatment. The authors re-iterate, “patients with severe anorexia nervosa give the illusion of sanity even when they are driven by deadly irrationality, failing to appreciate that anorexia nervosa has the highest death rate in psychiatry…” (p. 234).
Chapter 15, “Medical Information for Nonmedical Clinicians and Educators.” This chapter is geared toward coaches, teachers, therapists, and others with a non-medical background that work with eating disorder patients (or in trying to prevent them). Out of control dieting and excessive weight loss, healthy nutrition, exercise, and risk factors are discussed. Also discussed are when should one be referred to treatment, how to approach someone you think may have an eating disorder, as well as easy-to-read information for coaches and parents.
“Appendix: Behavioral Guidelines for Staff to Use with Patients Who Have Eating Disorders.” This chapter gives guidelines for treatment center meals and other issues, as taken from the University of Iowa Hospital and Clinics, Behavioral Health Services, Eating Disorder Program.
My Thoughts on the Book:
Overall, I found this book to be a wealth of knowledge. Not much is published on the medical complications and treatment of eating disorders, and this was exactly what I was looking for to use when helping the doctors of my clients give the best care. I appreciated the tables, which neatly laid out information such as lists of symptoms, lab results and what they mean, medications, and in-depth explanations of complications such as gastroparesis and cardiac complications.
It was distracting that the authors did not correctly spell the word “dietitian.” Half of the time they spelled it correctly, and the other half they spelled it with a “c” (dietician) or they wrote “nutritionist.” The authors also misspelled “monounsaturated” as “monosaturated” fats (p. 220). Furthermore, they left the RD out of the list of team members in the section on “communicating with eating disorder specialists” (p. 29), listed the “physician, nurse, or dietitian” as the person in charge of weight restoration and refeeding, did not include the RD in learning how to shop for groceries and prepare food, and the fact they said, “…once-a-week psychotherapy with an experienced advanced registered nurse practitioner” (not a psychotherapist?) (p. 44). The International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals states, “RDs are the experts, in both food science and nutrition science, trained through education and experience to understand the complex relationship of food intake to overall physiological health” (IAEDP, 2015). Furthermore, the chapter on nutrition, was short and not very informative, which confirms my understanding that M.D.’s, though able to write diet orders and give “nutrition counseling” legally, are often not well versed in nutrition, or how to effectively explain it to someone else.
This book will be helpful to nutrition professionals, like myself, in understanding what clinical manifestations eating disorders are causing, as well as how to interact with physicians sharing patients, and how to explain to patients what is going on from etiology to treatment. Despite my issues with the author’s lack of understanding what the RD does, I would recommend this book to others working with eating disorders. There are other books specifically for nutrition treatment best practices. For example, Nutrition Counseling in the Treatment of Eating Disorders, 2nd Ed., by Herrin and Larkin, references this book in their description of refeeding syndrome (p. 193, Herrin & Larkin), gastrointestinal discomfort, and in referencing other topics. While Eating Disorders, A Guide to Medical Care and Complications comes from the perspective of treating the symptoms, the fundamental goal of nutrition counseling is behavioral change (Herrin & Larkin, p. 51).
Herrin, M., and Larkin, M. (2013). Nutrition Counseling in the Treatment of Eating Disorders, 2nd Edition. New York, NY: Routledge.
International Association of Eating Disorder Professionals (2015).The CEDRD in Eating Disorder Care. IAEDP.
Mehler, P.S., and Andersen, A.E. (2010). Eating Disorders, A Guide to Medical Care and Complications, 2nd Edition. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.
There is now an updated 3rd edition you can get HERE.
Libby is a Registered Dietitian focusing on student eating disorder treatment and prevention. She is working on the central coast to create wellness in individuals and the community.
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