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The case of the shrinking drumstick: Why we eat more than we think we do



There it sat, nestled next to the mounds of roasted yams and brilliant yellow hot corn salad, an icon of a drumstick fit for a food stylist — plump and juicy, roasted golden brown and dotted with thyme. Mouth-wateringly perfect in all regards with one exception — it was so size-challenged it looked like a mad scientist had taken it and shrunk it to feed an elf.

I’ve always assumed that industrial food production principles — produce more and produce ’em faster — have resulted in things like drumsticks that are way smaller than they were when I was a kid. But this drumstick on display was from an organic, locally raised chicken.

That plus the fact that I’ve been reading Brian Wansink’s book, Mindless Eating , made me jump. Maybe the size issue was just a matter of relativity: The chicken drumstick only seemed smaller because it was sitting next to way bigger servings of yams and corn than I’d have on my plate when I was a young ’un — a mouse of a drumstick sitting next to a dump truck load of potatoes and corn.

That kind of relativity is what Wansink’s book is all about. The cover features a dinner plate with a pitchfork and shovel beside it, where one might expect a fork and spoon, and the subtitle “Why We Eat More Than We Think”, a phrase that could kick off a sequel to the punctuation consciousness-raising Eats, Shoots & Leaves. (I think what Wansink really means is why we eat more than we think we do. But maybe he really was riffing on the notion that we eat more than we think.)

As professor of marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University, Wansink and his colleagues have done some pretty interesting research into the phenomena of cravings, obesity and diet. It all comes down to the somewhat un-Buddhist-like practice of unmindful eating — eating without realizing what we are eating, how much we are eating, and why we are eating what we are.

One of their more intriguing experiments centred around visual cues to signal we are full. Did your mom or dad always tell you you couldn’t go outside and play until you “cleaned up your plate”? Do you still find yourself eating and eating until every last morsel of precious food is gone, even though you really felt full a few bites ago? Then this experiment was aimed at you.

Wansink and his colleagues wanted to test the premise that we humans eat the volume we want, not the calories we need. As a subtext to this, remember that the food industry knows that the two cheapest ingredients you can add to a commercial product are water and air. Remember that the next time you heft a big carton of Brand X ice cream and compare it to a smaller sized one like Haagen-Dazs.