As our nation struggles to get a handle on high obesity rates, portion sizes have been getting a makeover. Restaurants and manufacturers are replacing the ‘bigger is better’ approach with more modest servings. We consider the cultural, historical and scientific factors that influence portion size in modern America.


  • Brian Wansink, Ph.D. John Dyson Professor of Marketing and Director, Cornell Food and Brand Lab in the Department of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University
  • Rachel Laudan Historian; visiting scholar, University of Texas at Austin, author, 'Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History'


  • 13:06:38

    MR. TODD KLIMANFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, D.C., welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. I'm Todd Kliman, sitting in for Kojo. When dining out, your options used to come in two sizes, heaping portions filling plates the size of manhole covers, typically cheap fare that left you feeling like you got a lot for your dollar or small refined plates with morsels of artfully arranged, expensive ingredients upon them, served up for premium prices.

  • 13:07:14

    MR. TODD KLIMANAs our food culture changes and evolves, we've discovered a lot more middle ground. But questions about portion sizes continue to plague us as competing often conflicting values play out on our plates. Here to talk us through the ways in which we've been rethinking portions size and how those portions have changed over the centuries are Brian Wansink, a John Dyson Professor of Marketing and the Director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. He's also the author of "Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions For Everyday Life." Thank you for joining us, Brian.

  • 13:07:52

    DR. BRIAN WANSINKIt's great to be with you.

  • 13:07:54

    KLIMANAnd from the sound lab in Austin, Texas, Rachel Laudan, who is a historian and visiting scholar at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of a new book, "Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History." Brian, I want to start with you. Portion size seems like such a subjective thing. One persons large is another person's small. For your purposes at the lab, how do you define or think about portion size?

  • 13:08:21

    WANSINKWe view it in terms of what is the norm for a person in a given situation. So a portion size for a guy, what's considered to be normal or typical, is going to be much different than for, say, most females. It might be, you know, more for somebody's who's a little bit older, then somebody that's a little bit younger. And so forth. But the fact is that, a government, sort of, stated portion size isn't what we serve ourselves. We serve ourselves what looks about right. And that's tremendously subjective.

  • 13:08:55

    KLIMANWhat looks right to us. It's changed over the decades, for sure. Rachel has written about this and Rachel, thanks for joining us. There's been a huge shift, as you've recounted in your book, over the past few generations and our attitudes toward food. How what we eat shapes and defines us. In so much of this change, you write is bound up in matters of class and I'm interested in hearing from you about the relationship between food and status. A complicated question but I'm hoping you might be able to illuminate it a little bit for us, that conflict.

  • 13:09:33

    MS. RACHEL LAUDANYes. Well, of course, as a historian, I take the long view. And we are really living in a quite extraordinary time in human history, in the United States and increasingly in the West of the world. For most of history, food was sufficiently scarce. It was sufficiently expensive in terms of time and money, both to grow and to process. That society was divided into two very unequal groups, unequal in size, unequal in access to food.

  • 13:10:05

    MS. RACHEL LAUDANThere was a small group of about 10 percent of the population, the Aristocracy, who could eat whatever they wanted, who had not only grains but meat, fat, sugar. And then there were the 90 percent and they had grains and grains and grains and perhaps a little cheese to make the food go down.

  • 13:10:30

    KLIMANAnd where are we now? We've changed so much from that.

  • 13:10:34

    LAUDANWe have changed, food has -- thanks to industrial agricultural, industrial processing, we are now in a situation where almost everybody can eat the food that was the food of the Aristocrats in the past. And that means, we are in a situation where people are having to learn, very quickly, that all the traditional celebrations, all the traditional phrases about what was good food, have to be rethought because they were all in terms of, whenever you get a chance, eat as much as you can.

  • 13:11:06

    LAUDANAnd it's taking time for people to learn that. I think it's a wonderful thing that it's happening. It's an increase in equality and access. But it does take time to come to terms with it.

  • 13:11:21

    KLIMANA real reckoning with who we are, what our food is and what our relationship to it is. The audience joining us, today, I'm interested in hearing from you. What factors other than how hungry you are influence how much you eat at mealtime? And you can join us by calling, 1-800-433-8850 or email us at or you can get in touch with us through our Facebook page or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow.

  • 13:11:51

    KLIMANThere's been, Rachel, a huge shift that you've talked about over the past few decades and centuries, of course. That food is not just an eat to live proposition, we're beyond the necessities of survival and it's a cultural market for many of us. It's fetishized by some of us. Some of us spend all day thinking and writing about it. What do you make of our current relationship with food, in this country? This reckoning that you've been talking about and is it sustainable?

  • 13:12:25

    LAUDANI think what's really interesting is that in a certain sense, we've all become Aristocrats, that food really has become a sign, as you say, of status. It's not just permissible to like food, at the moment. It's really socially necessary to be able to talk about food. Maybe, I don't know, this is one pattern of how we might think about food. There was a competing one in the past, a smaller one. It goes from the Romans and it crops up again in the 19 century Europe and in 19 century America.

  • 13:13:03

    LAUDANAnd that's an alternative vision that says, yes, we should have good, plentiful food. We should enjoy it but we should not fetishize it. It was the position that Republicans, and I hasten to say here, not the current Republican party, Republicans with a small "r" took. They thought that the Aristocratic indulgence in food should be replaced by these healthy, ample, but not all consuming diets that they tried to practice.

  • 13:13:38

    KLIMANBrian, this transformation, this change that Rachel's been talking about is -- in the course of human history, it's a very profound shift in a very short time. So much of your work is about analyzing the gap between what we perceive to be true and what's actually true. You and your brother, who's a professor of religious studies, did a very interesting investigation. You looked at, what was on the table, am I right, in more than 50 paintings of the last supper?

  • 13:14:10

    WANSINKYes and all these different depictions of the last supper because a lot of people say, well, you know, portion size, it's just exploded in the last 20, 30, 40 years. You know, but, if this isn't part of a much bigger trend, as has been suggested. We should see this reflected into artistic depictions of food. And so what we did was we, we content analyzed the food and we measured an index the size the food in all these paintings of the last supper and we indexed it based on the size of the people's heads.

  • 13:14:39

    WANSINKAnd -- because this is kind of a Rorschach test 'cause there's no real mention in the new testament, in the gospel's about what was served for dinner or how much or how big the portion sizes were. So if it's reflected by the painters, it is probably gonna reflect the zeitgeist or the, I guess, the trends of that particular country, at that particular time. And what we found, is over the past 1,000 years, portion sizes increased by 69 percent in depictions of food in the last supper. Bread size increased about 22 percent. And even the size of plates has gone up by about 61 percent.

  • 13:15:26

    KLIMANThat's an extraordinary story. So there's -- this last supper is actually quite extraordinary meal with -- without putting too fine a point on it. It is, is there -- you know, there was a story that came out a few years ago about plate size and how plate size has grown. And because plate size has grown, over a period of probably 50, 60, 70 years in this country, that portion size has grown along with it. Brian, you've looked into that.

  • 13:16:00

    WANSINKYeah, yet there was a study also and one of the things that we found from 19 -- just from 1960, plate sizes have increased by about one and a quarter inches. Just in the last 50 years. And one thing that we find, is if you are serving pasta, for instance, you might serve, let's say, four ounces on a 10 inch plate. But if somebody gives you a 12 inch plate, which is a size that most of us have in our homes, the average typical person serves about 22 percent more. But they don't realize it, 'cause in their mind, they just put on what seemed like an appropriate amount for the size plate. And they're no more full, they're no more hungry. It's simply this visual cue trips people up tremendously.

  • 13:16:44

    KLIMANSo if you're a member of the clean-plate club, you are diluting yourself.

  • 13:16:52

    WANSINKWell, that's exactly right. I mean, we just -- actually just published a study last week that shows that -- we looked at over 1,000 people across the entire world and showed that, regardless of what -- whether you're a man or a woman, regardless if you're from Taiwan or from the United States or the Netherlands, you eat about 92 percent of anything you self serve.

  • 13:17:12

    WANSINKSo if you put something on your own plate, 92 percent is gonna be gone. And basically, anything that causes you to serve too much, whether it be the size of a serving spoon or the size of a serving bowl or the size of your plate or what the persons doing next to you, it's going in your tummy.

  • 13:17:30

    KLIMANYou're gonna eat what's there. You're gonna eat what's there and you're gonna get heavier and all the ramifications will spin out from that. Rachel, you make the point, in your book, which by the way got a wonderfully glowing review in the New York Review of books, congratulations.

  • 13:17:48

    LAUDANThank you.

  • 13:17:49

    KLIMANYou make the point that the backlash we're not seeing in the food movement, the backlash against industrialized and processed foods, actually obscures something really important, which is that they've had an enormous effect on great numbers of people. How have processed foods improved the lives of consumers?

  • 13:18:08

    LAUDANWell, it used to be the case, a long time ago, admittedly, that it took about 20- percent of the working population just to grind grains, to give you the basic daily bread. So one in five women were grinding. That was still the case among Mexican women, say, 30, 40, 50 years ago. What industrial processing does is it shifts the energy required to turn farm products into food, from the humans and perhaps the animals, over to fossil fuel.

  • 13:18:47

    LAUDANAnd that frees up huge numbers of the human population, both to make greater contributions to society and from the individual point of view, to be able to choose what they do with their lives. So that people who, in Mexico, say, two generations ago, who had no choice but to spend their lives grinding five hours a day, are now able to go out to work, spend more time with their children, become teachers, what have you.

  • 13:19:17

    KLIMANYou make a really fascinating point toward the end of your book. Just want to read it for all those out there listening. You say, "If our vision of the way to have better food is to have less processing, more natural food, more home cooking and more local food, we will cut ourselves off from the most likely hope for better food in the future." That's a sentiment that is incredibly provocative and also flies in the face of so much of what we are hearing in the media among the food community.

  • 13:19:54

    LAUDANI think...

  • 13:19:54

    KLIMANExpand on it a little bit.

  • 13:19:56

    LAUDANI think, processed food has become simply a term for food we don't like. So that, you know, Spam counts as processed food because we don't like it. Whereas pate, which is essentially the same stuff and has been equally transformed but we do like counts as, you know, really good food. So, I think, we've got to think really hard about this business of processing because it has both, from the point of view of, you know, allowing more people to contribute to society and individuals to have fuller and richer lives, it has made the most amazing contribution.

  • 13:20:35

    LAUDANAre all industrially processed foods good? No, of course not. But then neither are all foods processed by women grinding on their knees. So I think the key question is not, you know, whether it's processed or industrially processed but whether it's good. And that gets us into a whole series of questions and I'm sure Brian's spent a lot of time thinking about, does good mean cheap, does it mean tasty, does it mean showing social status? But those are the questions we have to ask as a society.

  • 13:21:10

    KLIMANAnd we have questions to ask of you. How do you teach your kids about portion sizes at home? And when you go out to eat do you look for the most bang for your buck or do you prefer smaller portions? You can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at Get in touch with us through our Facebook page or you can send a tweet to @kojoshow. We'll continue our conversation with Brian Wansink and Rachel Laudan after a short break. Stay tuned.

  • 13:23:24

    KLIMANWelcome back. I'm Todd Kliman from Washingtonian magazine sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University where he directs the food and brand lab. He's also the author of the forthcoming book "Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions For Everyday Life." And from the sound lab in Austin, Texas, Rachel Laudan. She's a historian and visiting scholar at the university of Texas at Austin and the author of a new book "Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History."

  • 13:23:52

    KLIMANBrian, you're a kind of myth exploder. We had a myth exploder on the previous segment. We tend to think finer dining's more portions, fast food, the mounded heaping plate. But it's not just the amount of food on the plate that plays into how much we eat, is it? It's the atmosphere in a restaurant. It's the lighting, the music, the colors. All these play some role, you say, in how much we eat.

  • 13:24:20

    WANSINKWe found that even the color of a plate plays a role in how much you end up serving yourself. So we did a study a while back and gave people red pasta on either a red or white plate or white pasta on either a red or white plate. And what we find is that the more contrast there is between whatever you're eating and the color of the plate, the more you're likely to eat less, like about 18 percent less. But if you're serving white pasta on a white plate or white rice on a white plate or white potatoes on a white plate, you're going to serve about 18 percent more than you otherwise would.

  • 13:24:52

    WANSINKAnd that's just the silly color of the plate. But we also find that even simply if you're passing food family style, about 44 percent of how much you will eat of an item is determined by what the person just before you took and put on their plate. So they -- if you're sitting next to a heavy eater, oh, it's all over for you. So choose your dining mates carefully.

  • 13:25:16

    KLIMANWhat does all this tell you?

  • 13:25:19

    WANSINKWell, that we are a world of mindless eaters. Okay. I mean, we think we're master and commander of all these food decisions but we're not really focusing on them as much as we think. In fact, we're paying more attention to what the person sitting next to us, what the conversation is, the to-do list of 15 things we have in the back of our mind. We're not focusing on, you know, tasting the pea and deciding whether that -- you're full or not. And I don't know that we should. I mean, that's -- I mean, my contention is that what we need to do is set up our environment so we can mindlessly eat but just not mindlessly eat too much.

  • 13:25:57

    KLIMANRight. You're going the opposite direction from what most of what we're told of the health experts, the nutrition experts, that we need to make conscious choices and be very aware of them and very aware of what we put into our bodies and how we live our lives. And you're saying, no.

  • 13:26:13

    WANSINKYeah, and I mean, in an ideal world that would be the case. But most of us have -- we go home, we still have seven things to do on a to-do list, our kids are screaming, the phone's ringing, we're trying to change. And to sit down and just zone out over a plate of food is something that most of us don't have the luxury to do. It works well for 10 percent of the population but there's other roads to roam for the other 90 percent of us.

  • 13:26:38

    WANSINKAnd simply using a smaller plate so you serve less, you know, essentially serving a pre-plating off the stove or oven so that you can have seconds or thirds if you want but you have to get up and walk, these are all little bitty things that nudge us to -- remind us to eat a little bit less and become slim by design as a result.

  • 13:26:58

    KLIMANYou did a fascinating study -- all your studies are fascinating. This one is particularly fascinating to me. I'll call it the potato chip study. And you asked, when you sit down with a bag of potato chips, do you know how many you're really eating? So what did you find and what did that study tell us about our snacking habits?

  • 13:27:19

    WANSINKWell, when you sit down with a bag of potato chips typically people think they eat about 215, 300 calories. It's typically closer to 600 if you have a big enough bag.

  • 13:27:28

    KLIMANOh, my gosh.

  • 13:27:30

    WANSINKAnd so one of the things we did is -- because what's the stopping point? The stopping point's when you hit the bottom of the bag for some of us. And so what we did was we said, well, what would happen if we put in just these artificial stopping points? Would it cause people to kind of stop and giving a huh, maybe I'm done. And so what we did is we took a -- those tubes of potato chips that, you know, you can buy, there's a number of different brands.

  • 13:27:52

    WANSINKAnd we colored every seventh chip a red color or we colored every fourteenth chip a red color. What we find is whenever people hit a red chip in this tube of potato ships, it represented sort of an interruption in their mindless hand-to-mouth feeding. And they might eat a couple more after that but then, yeah, they would typically stop. So people would eat in sort of groups of the seven chips at a time because there's finally something to say, hey slow down.

  • 13:28:26

    KLIMANIt's so interesting. Just that brief sighting of that colored chip is just enough to kind of stop that momentum. Rachel, I want to turn to you, and this is kind of a natural segue because you go to the store and of course, now you see so many kinds of potato chips. I walk down the aisle of the grocery store and I sometimes feel like Jack Gladney in Don DeLillo's "White Noise." It's amazing to be there. It's dizzying. It's not quite real. Sixty brands of cereal, condiments from every corner of the globe. And yet all you have to do is go back a few generations and plenty was most definitely not the norm for most Americans. Put it in perspective for us. Just how profound is it to have come to the point we are?

  • 13:29:14

    LAUDANMaybe I can put it in my own lifetime. When I was a child we lived on a farm. We ate everything from the farm except flour, sugar, bacon, butter and tea, which came from the grocer and meat which came from the butcher, bread which came from the baker. And potato chips were a special treat, going back to what Brian said. My uncle who lived with us would buy the three of us children a bag of potato chips, the small size. You know, the one that's about 3" by 4 as a special treat. And we would divide the potato chips up between the three of us, counting them out down to the nearest slither.

  • 13:29:58

    LAUDANSo there you had very conscious mindful eating but, I mean, the shift is what makes me such a fan of the kind of line that Brian is taking, that we need to reengineer our whole environment. Giving people grand one-size-fits-all rules, which they almost invariably fail to follow and then feel, you know, that they have failed I think is proving itself not to be very helpful.

  • 13:30:31

    LAUDANSo, you know, with the grocery store, I mean, one just has to learn to -- or find tricks to signal out all these things that are flashing at you. I think most people do because, you know, no housewife has time to, every time she goes, check out all these different things. And the question is how do you find the kind of little tricks that Brian is talking about for the grocery -- for the dining table, also for the grocery story.

  • 13:31:05

    KLIMANIt's a great question. We have to relearn our relationship to this thing that we grew up eating. I want to take a call from Machala who has a thought about the portions and the neighbor that Brian talked about, how a neighbor can influence what you eat. Machala, are you with us?

  • 13:31:25

    MACHALAYes. Hello?

  • 13:31:28

    KLIMANYes, go on ahead.

  • 13:31:29

    MACHALAOkay. Well, when I was hearing you what it made me think of was when families have family dinners together or maybe choose not to and how that (word?) you know, understanding of portion sizes when you see, you know, your mom taking a certain amount or served a certain amount, how that impacts eating inside and outside the home.

  • 13:31:58

    KLIMANHow does it?

  • 13:31:59

    MACHALAI don't know.

  • 13:32:00

    KLIMANWell, no, I'm asking Brian. Brian, do you have a read on this?

  • 13:32:06

    WANSINKYeah, there's tremendous modeling that goes on by parents. So that's -- it's often very difficult when your kids go to school and they want to eat pizza and they want to eat chocolate milk and things like this. Well, jeez, that's pretty much modeled by mom and dad and what they ate. So to expect them to act differently than us is going to be difficult. When a lot of parents don't have portion size or portion control under control, it's kind of hard to expect that their children will grow up the same way.

  • 13:32:36

    KLIMANI fear for my own children who are growing up with the norm that nine dishes at the table is somehow okay. We have an email from Makendry in Washington who wants to know, "How are the large portion sizes of today related to the recent study that shows that fewer children are aware that they are obese, or what the definition of obesity is? Is there a better strategy to making children more aware of what a normal portion size is?"

  • 13:33:05

    LAUDANThis one's yours I think, Brian.

  • 13:33:07

    WANSINKYeah, that's right. Well, one place that I have tremendous hope for is in schools because most portion sizes that are served in standard school lunches are the right size and they're not in exaggerated portions, whether they're dessert or whether they're actually mashed potatoes. They are fairly standard size portions. I think that's the best benchmark that kids have growing up. Because if their parents can't give them those rules of thumb then they're going to be learning from somewhere else. And at least I think school's a great place to learn.

  • 13:33:39

    WANSINKBut second of all, I mean, what we do -- I've got three girls under ten and what we do there to help them understand portion sizes, we give them small bowls to eat their dinners out of. And so, you know, they -- by design you can't really put too much of any one thing in there. And I think, his home, they can go back for seconds or thirds but it gives them a different sense as to what's a normal amount to have on a plate or bowl.

  • 13:34:05

    KLIMANYeah, we'll throw that out there to everyone who's listening. How do you teach your kids about portion sizes at home? And you can join us by calling 1-800-433-8850. You can email us at You can get in touch with us through our Facebook page or send us a tweet to @kojoshow.

  • 13:34:25

    KLIMANWe're talking about kids and what we pass on to kids. And American culture is so different from so many other cultures in the world. And Rachel, I want to know if industrialized food practices and developments spread throughout the globe, how are those culinary traditions changing?

  • 13:34:45

    LAUDANWell, we've seen around the globe that there's been a move towards what is often called a western diet. It's a diet that everybody wants. It's neatly summed up in the McDonald's experience. It's beef, it's white bread, it's milk as in the milkshake with a little bit of green on the side, because after all fresh greens are a real privilege in most places.

  • 13:35:09

    LAUDANAnd this was, for generations, what everybody in the world aspired to. They're growing like mad around the world. I don't think it's accident. Meat, fat, sugar allow you to have a much more tasty diet. I wouldn't argue that we should or could try to reverse this back to the very bland and frequently very unhealthful diets of the past. But it's -- to repeat myself yet again, it's a situation where everybody's having to learn fast. This is not just the U.S.'s situation.

  • 13:35:57

    KLIMANOne of the interesting things in your book is that you get into the idea that people in the past 100 years ago, 200 years ago, but let's turn the clock back a century, that people knew somehow what they needed for a day -- what they needed to subsist on for that day. They knew it. They knew it intuitively. How did they know?

  • 13:36:21

    LAUDANPeople spent a lot of time thinking about rations. People had to get through the winter. They had to get through the dry season or the rainy season or whatever season it was when food wasn't plentiful. And so there was a widespread knowledge in society of how much food -- the minimal amount of food really that people needed in order to survive from day-to-day. And that's what tended to be served. It was served to servants. It was served to farm laborers. It was served to armies. It was served to children. It was served in families. And it was adjusted according to circumstances.

  • 13:37:04

    LAUDANIt was standard just before harvest to kill one or two animals so that there was extra meat because the extra labor required for harvest was enormous. Now of course, you know, that has all vanished because nobody is thinking about how to stretch what is in their pantry through the winter or the rainy season. They can -- if they run out of things they run down the road to the grocery store.

  • 13:37:34

    LAUDANIt's wonderful, I think, that that anxiety has gone but we've lost all sense of what portion we can survive on. Our stomachs are not telling us how much we should eat.

  • 13:37:50

    KLIMANAnd it's also so interesting to think about so many of the great dishes around the world. They’re rooted in poverty. A panzanella -- Italian panzanella, bread salad, the meatballs that the Italians would eat which were full of a lot of breadcrumbs and a lot of binder, but they had a lightness because they weren't all beef. We've gained but we've lost a lot, it seems because we've lost some of these traditions that were enduring and wonderful. I want to go to Diana who is dealing with some of this at home with her mother. Diana, are you on the line?

  • 13:38:25

    DIANAI am. I'm right here.

  • 13:38:27

    KLIMANGo on.

  • 13:38:28

    DIANAWell, I grew up Hispanic. And if you had a dinner or even just a family dinner, if someone said, oh that looks delicious. I'd like to have some more, you better have some more because otherwise it was kind of shameful to say, you know, I'm sorry, I didn't make any more food. So we ate a lot. And we're not overweight people but that's the way we grew up.

  • 13:38:52

    DIANASo my mom has lymphoma and I was trying to teach her how to eat better quality food rather than buy gigantic steaks so that she could always have extra. And she said, but the food, it's just so expensive. I say, mom, you don't have to eat that much. And it is not shameful to say, that's it. You got one piece of meat. It's wonderful. It had a name. Somebody butchered it just for you. And that's it. That was your -- I said, go back 50 years mom, that's how you used to eat. You didn't eat loads and loads of endless meat.

  • 13:39:23

    DIANAAnd so every time I have a dinner she comes and she always makes me a little filler food for my guests just -- I just need a little extra in case anybody's still hungry. So it's just -- it's less retraining my kids. It's more retraining my mom who came to this country and it was the land of plenty. And she just has -- she just doesn't get it yet.

  • 13:39:44

    KLIMANDiana, thank you for calling in. I have a question for you, Brian, and for you Rachel too. Is it possible to retrain ourselves? We've grown up eating a certain way and that's imprinted in us, or I assume it's imprinted in us. And to have had a way of eating, a way of thinking about eating for many, many decades? Is it possible to reset the clock?

  • 13:40:12

    WANSINKNobody in America wants to believe that they have to eat less of anything. There's the old expression by Jerry Garcia that, you know, too much of anything is just enough. I think that we have a much better opportunity to think in terms of replacement instead of reducing. And the replacement for the mother that was referred to just a couple minutes ago, using something like, we all it our half-plate rule. We tell people, look you can have anything you want on half your plate but the other half has to be fruits, vegetables or salad. You can have seconds or thirds of everything but half, again, of your plate has to be fruits, vegetables or salad.

  • 13:40:55

    WANSINKSimply that rule of thumb allows a person to believe they're still eating a full amount of food even though they've drastically reduced the energy density on the plate.

  • 13:41:05

    KLIMANIt's fascinating. Small, small changes and they make such profound differences. We're going to take a break and we'll be back with Brian Wansink and Rachel Laudan after a short break. Stay tuned.

  • 13:43:02

    KLIMANWelcome back. I'm Todd Kliman of Washingtonian magazine sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. We're talking with Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing at Cornell and the director of the food and brand lab there. He's the author of a forthcoming book "Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life." And from the sound lab in Austin, Texas, Rachel Laudan who's a historian and visiting scholar at the University of Texas at Austin and the author of the recently released "Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History."

  • 13:43:32

    KLIMANRachel, we've seen these big public debates playing out over whether certain sizes of soda should be banned or whether new nutrition labels should be mandated by law. And what's fascinating to me is that these debates always reveal such deep regional differences. Is it fair to say that portion control is now part of the culture wars?

  • 13:43:57

    LAUDANMy goodness. I'm -- I'd say of the class wars probably because it always seems to be phrased in a way that says, how can we get them to change their habits? it's rarely phrased as, how can we get ourselves to change our habits? So that I think, yes, it is part of -- possibly part of culture wars. And -- no, that'll do.

  • 13:44:47

    KLIMANClass wars are a part of the culture wars and...

  • 13:44:50

    LAUDANIt was, um-hum.

  • 13:44:51's interesting to me in my role as a food critic to just see the conversation, particularly on the coast. People will use the phrase portion control and they'll use it as a -- it's always a pejorative when it's applied to a restaurant like the Cheesecake Factory. You know, look at them and there's kind of a sneer. Look at them with those huge portions. And of course people go to the Cheesecake Factory so that they can have not only dinner that night but lunch the next day.

  • 13:45:23

    KLIMANAnd -- but it's always there is the sense that people who are not -- as you said, it's an us them. People who are not us are not exercising restraint. They're not being judicious enough. It's a fascinating sort of gap and tends to play out on the coast. And I don't know so much in the middle of the country. Brian, I just wanted to get into the USDA pyramids, which are -- create a lot of confusion for people. There's a new food pyramid called My Plate. And it's very different from the old model. How effective has that been as a tool for people, especially for mothers?

  • 13:46:06

    WANSINKIt's been very effective as a tool because what it does is it's a visual representation not just in the five different food groups, but also roughly the proportion that they should represent across a day. So one of the things we found as mothers is that the early adopters though of the pyramid -- I mean, pardon me, the early adopters of My Plate end up having some very interesting things in common.

  • 13:46:31

    WANSINKOne was they were already very highly familiar with My Pyramid, the previous dietary symbol. But the other thing they had in common -- which, you know, pretty much means they're interested in nutrition, but the other thing they had in common is that they were all very good cooks. They tended to cook a lot of vegetables. And so it was interesting that the earliest adopters of My Plate were people who were probably some of the most active cooks in the kitchen to begin with.

  • 13:46:57

    KLIMANProbably the least likely to need it.

  • 13:46:59

    WANSINKNo, that's exactly right. That's exactly right. And I think there's some interesting things that this suggests for people who are slower adopters, that what also needs to be done is to give them a little bit of advice about how to cook vegetables, a little bit more cooking advice.

  • 13:47:15

    KLIMANWe have a question from Sue who's on line in Severna Park with a question about speed as it relates to eating. Are you with us, Sue?

  • 13:47:24

    SUEHi, I'm here.

  • 13:47:26

    KLIMANGo on. You have a question for speed and eating.

  • 13:47:27

    SUEHi. Yes. Well, I was noticing you're talking about portion control but what I learned growing up was if you sit and have a conversation and you eat slowly, you'll naturally feel full before you've eaten too much. And I think that might be missing in our culture now.

  • 13:47:47

    KLIMANBrian, what do you think about that?

  • 13:47:49

    WANSINKWell no, it's a good point, Sue. And that's true. If there's a fixed amount of food on your table, that's what happens. But what often happens, let's say in a restaurant, if you sit there a little bit longer, the waiter or waitress comes by and says, hey, do you want something else? And, you know, if one orders, the other's going to order. And so that's what stretches out a little bit at restaurants. What stretches it out at home is if you sit around a bit longer and you have too much food in front of you, yeah, you tend to continue to nibble for a while. But in general if you don't have like 17 items in front of you, you really eat less. You eat slower.

  • 13:48:21

    WANSINKBut another interesting thing about timing is, we did a study a while back where we went in and we watched, like, 350 people eat in an all-you-can-eat chain buffets. We found that one of the differences between people who were obese and people who were normal weight was a typical normal weight person chewed about 15 times per mouthful on average. The typical obese person only chewed about 12 times per average. So actually was...

  • 13:48:51

    KLIMANHow did you actually come up with this, Brian?

  • 13:48:55

    WANSINKWell, the bigger study was, you know, people say, you know, the phase, it should be illegal, they should be zoned out of town. They should be -- you know, because they make everybody fat. Again, and to the excellent point that Rachel made about it being a class issue. And we thought, well you know, there's a ton of people out there. There's a lot of people that eat at buffets but they are really skinny. What do they do differently than heavy people?

  • 13:49:23

    WANSINKNow if you were to ask them, you know, they wouldn't be able to tell you because most of the stuff just become engrained behavior. But when we observe them we find all sorts of crazy things. Like they -- on average skinny people sit 16' farther away from the buffet than heavy people. Heavy people tend to sit closer, skinny people farther away. They tend to be more likely to face away from the food whereas a lot of heavier people will directly face the food.

  • 13:49:48

    WANSINKAnd another thing they did was they would scout out the food before picking up their plate, whereas about 73 percent of heavy people would go directly, pick up a plate and then go to the first item, second item and third item. So it's part of a larger craziness when we were doing the study...

  • 13:50:07

    LAUDANAnd I think you -- I mean, it's -- the great thing about this kind of research is that if you can extract the lessons that Brian is talking about, you can give people ways of acting like adults and making their own diets. Because one of the things that it seems to me is troublesome is that you tend to get sort of one-size-fits-all rules. And people are not one-size-fits-all. As Brian said earlier, there are men and women, athletes and couch potatoes, babies and old people, people who've got physiological problems of one kind or another.

  • 13:50:43

    LAUDANAnd we are now in the fortunate position that whereas in the past, these would've all got one ration, you know, come what may. Now they can in fact design their own diet, their own cuisine. But it's -- that's, you know, quite a trick and you need all the help you can get. Not just blanket rules but specific small actions that people can make use of.

  • 13:51:14

    KLIMANAnd decide for themselves, as you said.

  • 13:51:16


  • 13:51:17

    KLIMANWe're talking about obesity and Brian has done so much fascinating work on obesity. And one of the things that really interests me is a possible link between pricing and obesity. Do I have that right? You've done a lot of work that suggests that there might be a correlation.

  • 13:51:39

    WANSINKYou know, in a number of different cases -- and one thing that we've done is we've invited people to all-you-can-eat buffets and we've changed the price. We found that the more you charge people at some of these buffets, not surprisingly the more they end up eating food to get their money's worth. So we brought people in and we charged them, in one case, $5 for an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet and the other case $10. People paying -- who paid $10 ended up eating about two more pieces of pizza, even though they rated the pizza as a lot less tasty.

  • 13:52:15

    KLIMANIt's so interesting.

  • 13:52:16

    WANSINKYeah, so there's sort of a get-your-money's-worth kind of feeling that I think sometimes we have at these places. And, you know, the scarcity thing that Rachel was talking about, that is really fascinating in the way it relates to rationing. And it's starting to answer a very puzzling thing that we found in the past, that if you give people -- we will bring people in and if we give people free food, people tend to eat a whole lot more than if we make them pay a nominal amount.

  • 13:52:49

    WANSINKAnd it's always puzzled me why this was. And I think this must be -- this probably goes back to something that Rachel was implying, that if it's free food it's open to everybody. And so all of a sudden it becomes a rare resource. If you don't get your share, you know, you're going to, you know, quote "go without." And I think it might explain why even when food's free we tend to kind of go too far in that direction also.

  • 13:53:13

    KLIMANYeah, we gobble without thought. We become mindless, right?

  • 13:53:16

    WANSINKYeah, and we want to get our share, yeah.

  • 13:53:17

    KLIMANBut not the good kind of mindless.

  • 13:53:20

    LAUDANPerhaps not mindless but just simply putting into action rules that we've imbibed through the kind of behavior that, was it Diane was talking about with her mother, the -- you know, plenty is important. We must make use of it. And whether it's language or whether it's customs, these we learn as children. And, you know, you don't change those overnight or even in one generation.

  • 13:53:52

    KLIMANAnd now you have the big food manufacturers and they're in on this. They're looking at portion control. They're changing their packaging. We're seeing little snacks that are only 100 calories in the packet. And they're expending enormous sums of money in focus group testing and calling on experts and all this research and all this science. And here we are the public buying and gobbling and heedless to how we're being worked on. What do they know about us or what do they know about us that we ourselves don't know?

  • 13:54:27

    WANSINKI think that we often over sort of project that there's like a conspiracy going on and that these people, they know every move we're going to make. And they really don't. I mean, in doing a lot of research in this area I'm always surprised when I mention these things to people and they're kind of -- these are the brand managers and things and they're kind of stunned. I mean, even back in 1996 when we came up with this idea of that 100-calorie pack. And we -- I was living in Philadelphia at the time and we went -- I called up, like, M & M Mars and Nabisco and said, hey, hey, let me show you this. I think there's a way that you can get people to eat less and make more money on it.

  • 13:55:03

    WANSINKIn presenting it to them it just really -- people just kind of -- when they got to that point in that punch line people would look at me like I'd been yodeling for the last five minutes. They just stared in disbelief. And I think they know a lot less about us than we kind of think we do. But one thing they do know is that we like variety a lot, which is why you get a lot of different types of potato chips or a lot of different types of things. And the other thing we notice is that we like choice, which is why you have 57 different sizes of Heinz 57 steak sauce or why you have seven different sizes of Rice Krispie boxes.

  • 13:55:43

    WANSINKAnd I'm grateful that they have small sizes, 100-calorie packs. But I'm also grateful for people who are a little more stretched with money that they have the huge, you know, holy Roman empire size bags too, because they're a lot cheaper per ounce for people who want that savings.

  • 13:56:02

    LAUDANAnd I'm also interested the extent to which they -- I mean, I've been watching Costco since I got back to the states a couple of years ago. And the speed with which they respond to whatever is perceived as the (word?) health trend I find quite extraordinary. Now sometimes these health trends seem to be, you know, perhaps not well considered, gluten free for example. But they -- to suggest that they are always leading and pushing stuff on thoughtless consumers I think is to oversimplify.

  • 13:56:44

    KLIMANThis brings me back to something that you got at in your book, which is a very rich and fascinating read. And you've argued that the profound societal changes that link up to belief, you know, beliefs about economics or political beliefs, beliefs about health, that these changes bring big changes in our food. And even create new cuisines. Are we in a period of change that is akin to the kind of periods that you're writing about?

  • 13:57:15

    LAUDANI think we very much may be. And this gets back to a question that you asked I think before the last break about whether humans can change their eating habits rapidly. It's kind of common wisdom, I think, among nutritionists that it's very difficult to change these. But I think it's not always very difficult to change them. When people undergo some great change in belief, they will change their food habits very quickly and very dramatically.

  • 13:57:48

    LAUDANThink in the last -- back to the hippy period, if you can remember that, when, you know, a lot of people joined the Hari Krishna movement. And suddenly they were all eating Indian vegetarian food. And these were, you know, red-blooded Americans. So people will shift and change. We -- now it seems to me we're in this amazingly fascinating period in history.

  • 13:58:15

    KLIMANWell, it's a fascinating period -- it's a fascinating book and I encourage everybody to read it. It's cook -- "Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History." Rachel Laudan from the University of Texas at Austin. Rachel, thank you for joining us. And Brian Wansink, the professor of marketing and the director of the food and brand lab at Cornell. I'm Todd Kliman, Washingtonian magazine sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. Thank you for joining me.

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