Improve Your Eating Habits Without Drastically Changing Your Behaviour

Improve Your Eating Habits Without Drastically Changing Your Behaviour

Angela Mulholland, Staff writer      Thursday, May 21, 2015

When we choose to wolf down a bag of tortilla chips instead of an apple, it’s probably not because we don’t know the apple would have been the healthier choice. The chips were easier to grab and we didn’t give it a whole lot of thought.

So if we want to start eating better, the healthy choices have to be just as mindlessly easy to grab.

Brian Wansink, Ph.D., the director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, has spent decades studying why we make the eating choices we do. He’s found the key to getting people to choose healthy foods over unhealthy ones is not about willpower or arming them with nutrition knowledge; it’s simply about making sure good foods are convenient (C), attractive (A) and normal (N).

Wansink calls it the CAN Approach. In a new paper published in Psychology & Marketing, he reviewed more than 110 studies and found that those approaches that were most effective at guiding people to healthier choices used at least one of the three keys of the CAN Approach.

In his most recent book, “Slim By Design,” Wansink argues that making a few changes to your routine and a few areas of your home will be a lot easier than trying to stick to a diet.

“People are terrible at making big changes,” Wansink told in a recent phone interview. “But we find if people are perseverant with these small changes for 25 days, they lose an average of 1.4 lbs month.”

That might not sound like a lot of weight, “but that’s more than they will lose by going on a diet,” says Wansink. And, he says, these are meant to be small, permanent behaviour changes that will encourage healthier eating over the long term.

So here are a few tweaks you can make right now at home based on Wansink’s ideas to push yourself toward healthy eating, no willpower required.


• Put fruit in a bowl on the counter: Simply putting fruit where you’ll see it will help to remind you to grab a piece before heading out the door to work or school.

• Re-arrange the fridge: True, veggies and fruit last longer in the crisper drawers, but if you can’t see them, chances are you’ll forget about them. Food and Brand Lab researchers who asked participants to re-arrange their fridges to put the healthiest stuff on the middle and top shelves found that the volunteers ate three times as many fruits and vegetables after just one week.

• Cut up fruit for your kids: Wansink’s research has found that kids don’t really like biting into big pieces of fruit: it’s too big for their mouths; they have missing teeth; the fruit gets in their braces or it’s just too messy. But cut up that fruit into cute, bite-sized pieces and fruit suddenly becomes a lot easier for kids to eat.

• Cook in big batches: If you make extra meals and freeze them in small portions, it becomes a lot easier to re-heat leftovers after a busy day than ordering pizza

• Make less-healthy snacks inconvenient: We tend to be lazy when we’re looking for snacks. So placing snack items in the back of a cupboard, out of reach — or better yet, in a faraway room like the laundry room — makes it a lot less convenient and gives us time to think about whether we’re really hungry or just bored.

• Buy portion-sized snacks: Wansink’s research has shown that snackers will eat fewer calories and still be satisfied if they eat snacks from small packages. Yes, we could always grab a second bag, but research shows we generally don’t make the effort.



• Make your meals more colourful: Colourful meals are more attractive meals, Wansink’s research has shown. He’s found that adults like to see at least three colours on their plates, while children prefer even more — six colours or more. Simple ways to add colour could involve tossing in chopped green and red peppers to rice, or making salads more colurful by adding in tomatoes, fruits, and seeds.

• Use colourful plates: One easy way to add colour to meals is through our plates. But be careful. Wansink’s lab has found that when food is the same colour as the plate, we tend not to see how big our serving is and serve ourselves about 20 per cent more than when there’s a lot of contrast between the food and the plate.

• Give food a descriptive name: Adults know that a dish described as Fresh Linguini with Creamy Alfredo sounds a lot more appealing than Pasta with White Sauce. The same holds true for kids. Wansink has found that when vegetables are given fun names such as X-Ray Vision Carrots, or Power Punch Broccoli, or Silly Dilly Green Beans, kids think of these foods as fun and will gobble them up.

• Add a garnish: You wouldn’t think that a parsley sprig would do much, but studies have shown that people rate a dish higher if it comes beautifully arranged with a garnish than if the same food is served plain. “It’s funny, isn’t it,” says Wansink, “but a garnish also makes people rate the meal as lower calorie too, which is even funnier, really.”


• Ask the kids what Batman would eat: A Food and Brand Lab study shows that when young children believe that a favorite character would choose a healthy food over a less healthy choice, they see that food is normal and choose to eat it too.

• Set an example for the kids: When kids see their parents eating a variety of healthy foods and trying new things, they will see these eating habits as normal too. Same goes for treats: when they’re at home only on special occasions, that too sets the norm for kids.

• Set new meal traditions: Make healthy foods a normal part of every meal by setting up new habits such as starting every dinner with a salad, or ending every meal with fresh fruit. Or begin weekly traditions such as Smoothie Sundays or Stir-fry Saturdays.

• Use smaller plates: The Cornell Food lab has found that people lose all perspective about portion size when they use a large plate. Not only do they help themselves to more, they believe they’ve eaten less than they have. Making a slightly smaller plate the norm is an easy way to keep your portion sizes under control.

• Ordering first when you dine out: By going first and choosing a light entree without an appetizer, you’ll set the “norm” of the meal and your dinner companies are more likely to follow suit. At buffet-style restaurants, make it a practice to sit far from the buffet. Wansink’s research has found that overweight people tend to face the buffet, watching other diners who then make it seem the norm to go back for third or fourth servings. Stay near the window and you’ll likely eat less.

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