On most days we are not really aware we have over eaten. Cornell University professor Brian Wansink calls it "the mindless margin," i.e. the zone in which we overeat without realizing it. Being just a little bit more "mindful" at the dinner table could make a substantial difference in our collective waistlines.
There's a formula. If you eat 3,500 calories above what your body needs, you gain one pound (3,500 calories might be the equivalent of a fast-food-with-lots-of-French-fries-lunch several days in a row).
You might want to ask for nutritional information next time you get a drive-through hankering and do a quick calculation. You can easily get to 3,500 calories, which is almost double the daily caloric requirement for some of us (it varies with activity level and gender).
You could look at it another way — just 20 extra calories a day over six months will get you an extra pound. So even if you went to that fast food establishment and ordered in a healthy way (it is possible), but then mindlessly nibbled French Fries from your table mate's plate, you could still be on that pound-at-a-time slippery slope to weight gain.
According to Wansink, it's not the food itself that causes us to overeat; it's more often the "scripts" we carry about eating. Here's a personal illustration, I have a friend who always nibbles from a neighboring dinner plate in a restaurant. She is otherwise a perfectly wonderful person but she has a habit of reaching over and tasting. French fries in particular. If she eats out a lot, that's a really slippery slope.
A common dinner script for men involves always eating second helpings of food. The solutions offered in Wansink's book "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think We Do," are creative. For example, the author suggests that we "restrict eating to just one location." Never eat standing at the kitchen counter, in a car or in front of a television. When you're at home, eat only while sitting at a table in a specific room of the house. If you're used to those second helpings, avoid feeling deprived by dishing out portions of food onto your plate before the meal starts and in a way that provides triple helpings of the healthier foods (vegetables perhaps?) and single helpings of meats and potatoes.
Our "taste" resides in our head as well as our mouth. The packaging and presentation of foods, ingredient listings and expiration dates can change how we feel about a certain food. For example, one research study involving yogurt required that it be eaten in the dark. The subjects, who could not see what they were eating, were told it was strawberry yogurt and asked to rate the strawberry taste. More than 50 percent of the individuals rated it as having a "good strawberry taste." The yogurt contained no strawberries; it was chocolate flavored.
According to Wansink, "Except in extreme cases, we taste what we think we will taste. If you expect a food to taste good or have a particular flavor, it will."
Our taste buds tend to be "biased by our imagination," he says.
The Japanese call it "katachi no aji" or "the shape of the taste." For example, if you are served food on a china plate, most people rate it as tasting better than if it comes on a paper plate. Or another example, if the food is described well, it elicits a more positive response.
My favorite description is the "Cheese Lovers Delight Personal Pan Pizza." That sounds so good to me I'm perfectly willing to eat it off a paper plate. But I will try to stay mindful, savor each bite and take half of it home with me for another meal — which I will not eat standing at the kitchen counter.
Sharon Johnson is an associate professor in health and human sciences at Oregon State University and on the faculty of the OSU Extension. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-776-7371, Ext. 210.