Monday, 27 February 2017
September / October 2014
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By Beth Saulnier

With a new book and hefty portions of user-friendly research, Mindless Eating guru Brian Wansink offers practical tips for stress-free slimming

Play with your food: Marketing professor Brian Wansink in the lunchroom at an Ithaca-area elementary school

Offer most kids the choice between apple slices or French fries, and odds are they'll go for the greasy goodness. But what if you first ask them to ponder a philosophical question: Which would Batman choose?

To fuel his crime-fighting adventures around Gotham City, many kids allow, the Caped Crusader would take the healthier option. Could contemplating that fact inspire them to do the same?

Marketing professor Brian Wansink showed as much a couple of years ago, with a small study published in Pediatric Obesity. He and his colleagues worked with twenty-two campers aged six to twelve over the course of a month, exploring how their choices of a fast-food side dish changed after considering what their role models, such as superheroes, would eat. And indeed, the researchers found that invoking Batman and his compadres quadrupled the number of kids who went for the apples—a switch that cut nearly 200 calories out of each meal.

If your family eats fast food once a week, Wansink's lab calculated, getting your kids to eschew the fries could keep each of them from gaining three pounds a year—no small achievement in the midst of a childhood obesity epidemic. And even better: to get the little ones on board, you don't have to lecture them on good nutrition. Just leave it to Batman.

Through the looking glass: A one-way mirror in the Food and Brand Lab offers a view of a testing room complete with high-end kitchen.

That's the study's lesson, the moral to its story. And with Wansink's work, there's always a lesson. The mantra in his Food and Brand Lab is to create "news you can use"—practical strategies to promote healthier eating. "We will never begin to publish anything unless there is news you can use that can make someone's life better," says Wansink. "We're all about easy changes you can make. It's always focused on a single takeaway. If we can't find a takeaway, we won't even promote it. We might publish it in a journal, but we don't want somebody saying"— his voice rises to a high, absurdist warble—'Well, there's kind of a relationship between talking to your kids about their weight and how much they weigh, but we're not even sure what it is.' We're not going to do that, because then we lose our reputation for having solutions."

On a chilly afternoon last semester, Wansink and two postdocs are discussing that very subject: the potential connection between how much a young girl's parents talk to her about her weight and how much she weighs later in life. They've collected data and surveys from women aged twenty to thirty-five, asking them to recall the extent to which their parents were fixated on their weight—be it too high or too low—and their eating habits. "We're trying to figure out the relationships, partly so we can make suggestions to people as to how to approach talking to their daughters," Wansink explains. "We've got journals interested in this paper, but our takeaway isn't so punchy and impressive that we even like it. They say it's enough of a contribution that they may want to publish it, but it's not up to our standard of really having the impact we want. So now we're taking it in some weird directions and seeing if we can uncover something."

'We will never begin to publish anything unless there is news you can use that can make someone's life better.' Wansink and his students are meeting in a lab space that's part conference room, part dream kitchen. There's the usual long table, chairs, and flat-screen TV—but at the far end of the room are cherry cabinets, a granite countertop, sink, stainless-steel refrigerator, and high-end stove. Plus, there's another unorthodox element: a pair of one-way mirrors. The room serves as a testing and observation space for the lab's many studies on food choices—colorful, often unorthodox experiments that have made Wansink a media darling. "Brian is a really strong marketer of the science that he completes," says former postdoc Lizzy Pope. "One of the problems we have as researchers is that we do great studies and they just kind of die in the scientific journals because most people can't access them or even understand them. Brian is published in well-respected, peer-reviewed journals, but he's really good at translating his results into practical tips that you can actually use, and getting that information out to the general public."