Brian Wansink, one of the nation's top experts on eating behaviors and the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, hopes that in his new federal job he can take a stab at reversing the obesity epidemic.
Wansink, who last week was named executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, wants to encourage people to "bump up their activity level." And he would like to work with registered dietitians and schoolteachers to help them teach others to use the government's nutrition tools, including the Food Pyramid (www.mypyramid.gov).
He'll also be forming an advisory committee to create the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. These would be a science-based update of the 2005 federal guidelines, which are considered the gold standard of nutrition advice.
Wansink says it took about 30 years for obesity to get where it is today, and "it's going to take some time to reverse it."
He is taking a leave of absence from his job as director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab.
During the past 20 years, Wansink has conducted more than 200 studies of environmental factors that push Americans, sometimes unconsciously, to overeat. He believes that people are constantly "trapped" by their surroundings into consuming 100 to 200 calories more than they need or want.
He says Americans can trim a couple of hundred calories a day and lose 10 to 20 pounds a year by doing things such as avoiding open food dishes at the office, using smaller serving bowls and spoons, and leaving serving dishes on the stove instead of on the table.
His research includes the McSubway Project, a series of studies that examine the habits of fast-food customers. Much of the research compares foods at McDonald's and Subway, which advertises that it has more healthful options.
Wansink found that there's a "health halo" around a lot of the foods at restaurants such as Subway in which customers feel virtuous about their choice of meals. So, his research shows, they overeat in side dishes and grossly underestimate the number of calories they consume.