A Cornell scientist came up with four ways to lose weight without dieting

You don’t have to rely on willpower.
You don’t have to rely on willpower.
Image: Reuters/Dominick Reuter
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Editors note: Since publication of this story, reanalyses of a number of papers published by Brian Wansink’s lab found the studies to be based on questionable research methods. Many of those papers have since been retracted or corrected, and others are still under investigation. In April 2017, Wansink issued a statement in which he expresses support for the reanalyses and critique, and says he has developed new standards for his lab. 

The best diet may be the one you don’t know you’re on.

If you change just one lifestyle habit, instead of struggling to power through a traditional “diet,” you can lose two or more pounds each week. If you change up to three habits, you may lose more. Sounds simple? It can be, according to Dr. Brian Wansink, consumer behavior psychologist and marketing professor at the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University who is on a mission to end dieting through what he calls “mindless eating,” which he details in his new book, Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life.

Wansink is one of a growing number of academics, researchers, social scientists and physicians who support the “small changes theory” as a means to combat weight loss and fight obesity. Simply put: Research and statistics show that small changes can have big payoffs.

“One thing that happens with people who are overweight is that they often feel their situation isn’t solvable, and they are on the verge of giving up,” explains Wansink. “What we’ve found over and over is that making one small change, like eating off a smaller plate, leads to a small weight loss, and then that triggers making more changes. Within a year, a person’s lost 35 pounds without ever ‘dieting.’ That’s our goal.”

Wansink coined the term “mindless eating” with his 2006 bestseller, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Now he and his cohort are applying the values of “mindless eating” to weight loss, advocating that small lifestyle and food habits changes can be so easy that you don’t have to think about them for them to be effective. Best of all: Mindless eating negates the need for willpower.

“It’s so much easier to be ‘slim by design’ than by using willpower,” Wansink says. “You make one change, it’s done. Willpower is a 24/7 unending job.”

Who ends up being overweight

Wansink and his colleagues have delineated 62 typical types of eaters. “The assessment helps determine what kind of eater a person is, so we can give them tips that work for them,” says Wansink. According to their findings, the five most typical types of overweight eaters are:

  1. Meal stuffers who don’t cook, who live with their families and watch four or more hours of TV per day.
  2. Meals stuffers who are emotional eaters, live alone, and buy carryout food or order in at least three days per week.
  3. Snack grazers who do most of their snacking away from home, are female, and who prefer salty snacks or baked goods more than candy (except chocolate).
  4. A parent who doesn’t like to cook, but who wants the family to eat better or eat less.
  5. Women (25-35) and men (45-60) who eat more than eight lunches or dinners away from home, and who eat more for the taste experience than to fill up on food.

Four different solutions

The four most essential lifestyle changes for adults who want to lose weight are as follows:

1. Make sure the only food on the kitchen counter is a fruit bowl

One of Wansink’s recent “in-home” studies shows that having potato chips visible in the kitchen can add eight more pounds to a woman’s frame than to another woman who didn’t. Women who kept a box of cereal out on the counter weighed 21 lbs. more than those who didn’t. Women who kept a fruit bowl out instead, however, weighed 8 lbs. less than women who did not.

2. At restaurants, order half-size entrees and use the “Rule of Two”

For the Restaurant Indulger, Wansink says, “Use our restaurant ‘Rule of Two:’ Order a reasonable entrée that sounds good to you, and choose only two other items to go with it. It can be an appetizer and a glass of wine, a bread roll and a dessert, two bread rolls, etc. This will lead you to choose the two items you want the most without feeling deprived.” Do this, and you’ll eat 21-23% fewer calories, Wansink’s findings show.

3. In the grocery store, fill the front of your cart with fruits and veggies

It’s the “we eat what we see” theory in action. Also, chew gum. Shoppers who kept their mouths busy with sugarless gum while shopping bought 7% less junk food, Wansink and his colleagues found in another study.

4. If you work outside the house, commit to not eating at your desk

Ask your workplace to help you by offering healthful choices and free fruit in break rooms or cafeterias. Also, pay with cash. Wansink reports that people who pay with cash at work buy fewer sodas and desserts.

The main idea behind Slim by Design, Wansink says, is to empower readers to create a bigger movement across the nation by identifying “booby-trap” hotspots: restaurants, workplaces and stores, then tweeting, Facebook posting, emailing or mailing their requests for healthful changes directly to those venues. While it may seem too good to be true that corporations and workplaces will listen, Wansink says they will because it’s in their interest in the bottom-line.

“A grocery store chain may not want to listen to government,” Wansink explains. “But it does need to listen to a person spending $5000 a year in one of its stores. If not, it’s going to be losing a lot of money.”