My name is Dan, and I’m a cheesoholic.
More often than not, when I come home from work I grab a wedge of cheese or two and a box of crackers or two and have a nice little snack.
But there are a couple of things about this scenario that I would like to address. The first is that I could just as easily consider myself a crackerholic who uses cheese as an excuse to eat crackers, but that isn’t the case. For me it’s all about the cheese.
The other is that I lied when I said it’s a little snack. On most occasions, there is nothing little about it.
This is a problem. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest — an advocacy group that seems to find joy in making other people miserable — one ounce of full-fat cheese can have as much as 6 grams of fat (they call it “artery-clogging fat”) in it. That is fully one-third of the fat — the artery-clogging fat — that adults should eat in a day.
By their use of the phrase “as much as,” I assume they are talking about the very fattiest of cheeses, the triple-cream cheeses such as the decadent St. André and the truly spectacular Brillat Savarin. I almost never eat those, for that very reason.
But even ordinary cheeses have a fair amount of fat, and 100 or more calories per ounce. I’d like to think I eat less than an ounce at a time, but I don’t really know. I slice it very thin, but that only means I eat more pieces. More pieces means more crackers, and crackers aren’t exactly free of calories, either.
I’m hooked. I’m addicted. And after the first piece or two, I find I don’t really taste it with quite the same intensity I did at first. It feels good, so I eat more, even though I’m not paying it as much attention as perhaps that much fat and that many calories deserve.
I am not alone.
Whether it is cheese or potato chips or cookies, a large number of Americans engage in what is known in academic circles as “mindless eating.” We eat because the food is there, we eat because we are too distracted by something else and don’t notice how much we are eating, we eat because we are unhappy or frustrated or bored. And altogether too many of us eat simply because the television is on. Eating snacks gives us something to do while staring numbly at the screen.
Brian Wansink at Cornell University has devoted much of his career to defining and describing this notion of mindless eating, and his research comes down to one central thesis: The tendency among some of us to overeat does not come from feelings of hunger, it comes from external cues.
We’re with friends? We eat. We’re driving? We eat. We come home craving cheese and crackers before dinner?
Mr. Wansink has determined that merely having a lot of something in the pantry, particularly a snack food, will cause us to eat more of it. And if we are served a larger portion, we will eat more of it too.
Think about a big tub of popcorn at the movies. The research shows that, on average, people mindlessly eat 45 percent more popcorn when served a large container than a medium-sized one. Even when the popcorn was stale and 14 days old — to use a nontechnical term, it was disgusting — people still ate nearly 34 percent more of it when it was served to them in a large container.
That right there is the definition of mindless eating.
Mr. Wansink’s suggestions for stopping it is to limit the external cues that trick us into eating more. Use smaller plates and bowls, he says. Keep tempting foods out of arm’s reach (a candy dish placed 6 feet away gets much less use than a dish placed on one’s desk). Don’t stockpile snack foods. Buy smaller packages of foods; for instance, buy a small jar of peanut butter instead of a large one. And this one is simple: Don’t keep fattening foods at home.
It’s called mindless eating. To counter it, just think about what you’re eating when you’re eating it.