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The little things do matter. (A lot!)
Think you might be influenced by a pretty label on a package? Nah... not me! Dr. Brian Wansink says that you are, and the subtle clues that contribute to not just what we consume but how we view it make a tremendous difference in how we eat. 

Just Thinking About Exercise
The best way to lose weight and maintain that weight loss? Eat right and exercise. There's been a lot of research on ways to help people make the effort to make changes in their diet and exercise behaviors, but recently Dr. Brian Wansink and colleagues from New Mexico and France noted that little research has been done on how exercising may actually mean eating more afterward - to compensate for the calories burned.

Right-Size Your Recipes
As you might expect, I collect cookbooks. The first cookbook I bought for myself was thePeanuts Cook Book, but the one my mother used most (and I bet yours did too) wasThe Joy of Cooking. I actually have several copies of this venerable cookbook, from the two-paperback edition from 1974 to the 1946 hardback that my wife bought me for Christmas last year.


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Those 100-Calorie Snack Packs

We know from previous research that when people eat from larger bowls or plates, they tend to eat more than those eating the same food but from smaller plates (Bite, 10/06/2006; Dr. Tim Says, 10/13/08). That's one reason that the food industry has introduced those 100-calorie packs of snack foods. The idea is that if you eat from these smaller packages, you'll eat less. Unfortunately, what research has been done to test the theory has led to mixed results. Brian Wansink, one of my favorite food researchers, designed a study to see if having smaller packages would really make a difference in how much people ate (Obesity (2011) doi:10.1038/oby.2010.306).

He and his staff recruited 37 undergraduate men and women who were told that they would watch a television comedy and then answer questions about it. While they watched the show, they were given prepackaged crackers to eat as snacks. These crackers were prepackaged in one of two ways: in one large bag or in four smaller bags. The four smaller bags contained exactly the same number of total crackers as in the large bag. (One is now forced to imagine the poor teaching assistant who got to count out all of those crackers.) The cracker packaging had no caloric information on it, regardless of the size of the bag.

After watching the show, the participants were asked to estimate how many crackers they thought they had eaten, in addition to providing their height and weight. They were also asked when they had eaten last and how hungry they felt after eating the crackers.

After counting the leftover crackers (there's that teaching assistant again), the researchers could see that the participants with the smaller bags underestimated how much they ate by just about 62%. Those with the larger packages underestimated their intake by 67%.

That said, those who ate from the smaller packages ate 25% less than their fellows who ate from the large bags. Further, those whose Body Mass Index fell in the overweight category (BMI > 25) ate over twice as much when they ate from the large package than when they ate from the small packages. Those within normal weight range ate about the same number of calories regardless of the packaging.

What this means for you

What's significant here is that eating from smaller packages made a big difference for those who were overweight. Just why that is remains to be seen, however. If you're working on your weight, those 100-calorie packs might be a good choice for you if you're going to eat those packaged snacks anyway. (Best to have a piece of fruit or a small handful of nuts, instead.)

First posted: February 9, 2011