Jo was the first subject in O's "mindful eating makeover" experiment. The idea: Take four women—a glamorous, out-on-the-town city girl in her 20s; a new mother (once an adventurous cook, now an aficionado of cheese puffs and kiddie waffles) in her 30s; a 40-something fast food lover with a busy job at a brokerage house and a desire to lose weight; and an entrepreneur in her early 50s whose diet is admirably healthy other than a penchant for snacking—and see if food behavior expert Brian Wansink, PhD, could gently get them to improve their eating habits.
Wansink is the John S. Dyson professor of marketing at Cornell University and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. He is also a nontraditionalist when it comes to diet. Through ongoing research at his Food and Brand Lab, he's found that a number of surprising factors, having more to do with perception than taste, influence our decision to take a bite (or sip): Fancy wine labels, for instance, entice us to drink more, big plates make us eat more, and exotic descriptions on menus coax us to order dessert. Based on such information, Wansink has developed a series of simple tricks to help people change unhealthy eating patterns. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, impressed by his unique approach to food, appointed him executive director of its Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP). Now he's overseeing the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans and new additions to MyPyramid, an interactive nutrition program. For our makeovers, O asked Wansink to share his insights into which cues might be prompting our subjects to eat poorly and to recommend the kinds of switches that could encourage behavioral shifts.
After agreeing to participate, each woman opened her door to the food makeover team—Wansink, Jackie Haven (a registered dietitian and director of nutrition marketing and communications at the CNPP), and me, a fly on the wall with a tape recorder. Wansink would start our visits by explaining, "There are five major diet danger zones: meal stuffing, snack grazing, party bingeing, restaurant indulging, and desk or dashboard dining." The subjects would nod in recognition. "Make three small changes in a problem area," he promised, "and you'll jump-start the rest of your life without even knowing it." All four of our volunteers were eager to try.