fitness · food

Popular food researcher discredited– what to think now about our eating?

Food researcher and Cornell Professor Brian Wansink, author of the popular book Mindless Eating, has been in the news lately. 13 of his published articles have been retracted by peer-reviewed journals, including 6 articles retracted by JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association). They were retracted because several researchers found inconsistencies and major methodological flaws in the work.

What does this mean? Things like using the same data to test multiple research questions (also called p-hacking), not keeping track of original data, and using the same results across multiple papers, mixing them in with other data and offering inconsistent reports on them.  All in pursuit of a statistically significant result that confirms the researcher’s intuition about what’s going on.

After detailed investigation by researchers, the journals, and also by Cornell, Brian Wansink resigned from the university.

You may have read or seen his work on how we can eat less by doing some of the following:

  • use smaller bowls and plates
  • use lighter-colored bowls and plates
  • don’t eat while watching action shows on TV
  • don’t buy large-sized containers of food (like those sold at warehouse stores)
  • put apples on the kitchen counter
  • put snacks into 100-calorie portions for eating

Wansink is perhaps most famous for his “Bottomless soup bowl” experiment. His group set up 4-person tables with soup bowls for people to come in and eat the soup. Secretly, they rigged one of the bowls with a tube that made that soup bowl keep from emptying (up to about a liter). They noted how much soup everyone ate.  Their result: people who ate from the rigged soup bowl consumed 73% more soup than the other people. You can find more about the study here.

I’m very disheartened by Wansink’s academic misconduct for a lot of reasons. First, I was really impressed by his research more than 10 years ago; it confirmed what I thought, namely that our food environment influences what and how and when and how much we eat.  This is still broadly true, by the way. However, the specific results Wansink provided (like that people eat more chicken wings in restaurants when you take away the bones as they are eating) may not be true.

I’ve cited Wansink’s articles dozens of times in my own published research. I’m going to have to rethink how to respond to their invalidation. Also, I’ve spent some time at Wansink’s Food and Brand Lab at Cornell, and talked with him about our overlapping research interests. He’s enthusiastic about his work, ambitious about getting his message out to the public, and has been very effective in publicity.

But the biggest problem is this: what to do with all his advice about portion sizes, plate sizes, moving foods around in my eating world to highlight carrots and hide cookies?

What can we know now? What can we rely on now?

Now, you might be thinking:  Catherine, get a grip. One researcher goes down in flames, and you’re saying we don’t know anything anymore. How about try this:

Keep calm and eat mindfully
Keep calm and eat mindfully

 

Yes, yes, you’re right.  I’m calming down now.

A woman breathing into a paper bag.
A woman breathing into a paper bag.

 

Doing good research is hard, requiring rigorous adherence to methodological standards, a high tolerance for failure, and the stamina to keep going.

For us, the food eaters, we don’t need rigor in order to eat successfully.  We’ve written about eating mindfully, following plans, discarding plans, considering the ethical import of what we eat, and we’ve come to the conclusion that one plan doesn’t fit all.

But I really really wanted some plans that did fit all.  Just saying. And I’m not happy.

child pouting spectacularly.
child pouting spectacularly.

Well, like it or not, it’s back to the kitchen, with an open mind.

What about you, dear readers? Did any of you know about or use Wansink’s work?  What do you think now? I’d love to hear from you.

 

 

 

11 thoughts on “Popular food researcher discredited– what to think now about our eating?

    1. Yes, I think lots of us have. And as Tracy points out below, it’s not that the ideas are bad ones or wrong. It’s that the influences are all around, and going off autopilot (as she perfectly puts it) gives us a chance to decide, or take a break, or continue with what we were doing.

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  1. Thank you for summarizing the issue and asking the questions about what to do now. I like the idea of eating mindfully. That isn’t discredited by any of this scandal. My first thought with the soup bowl experiment was “how could someone not notice that their soup bowl wasn’t getting any emptier?” I don’t think this could happen to me. But I don’t eat soup mindlessly. It could happen to me with potato chips though. Because I can and often do eat them on auto-pilot (if I eat them at all). So I actually do put them in a bowl. And that does make me more aware. And whatever research findings have been discredited, this seems like a common sense fix to make me more aware. It’s not necessarily that I won’t refill the bowl. But I will think about it first, so it takes me off of auto-pilot for a few minutes anyway.

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    1. Right– we vary in what we eat mindlessly (although I bet that the one/two-note foods like sweet or salty/fatty things are much easier to consume past pleasure). And yes, it is common sense and underwritten by our experiences that making ourselves more aware in eating contexts can result in more pleasurable, satisfying and happy eating.

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  2. I have thought a lot about his work. I am automatically skeptical of academics who sell diet books, mostly because I think they are (almost always) exploitative. I think the general model of eating that he uses–that our eating is influenced by environmental cues in ways we don’t notice and can’t wholly eliminate–is still viable. But any of the specific things he claimed to have shown will have to be tested again if we’re going to believe them. It’s really a shame that all that research money has gone to waste, not to mention all the work that’s been done that relies on his research–now that’ll be discredited too.

    Also I don’t really understand him as advocating for mindful eating. I read it as advocating for strategic mindless eating–i.e. using the bowl for chips so you just mindlessly eat what’s there instead of eating the whole bag. (Or maybe that’s just what I want him to have said because it’s a refreshing change from the “you have to pay close attention to food at all times!” message.)

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    1. Put chips in a bowl instead of eating the whole bag IS mindful eating, but yeah he’s definitely written for the lay audience very much in the vein of “look, it’s really easy to just do this on autopilot, so here are some tips n tricks to mitigate that.” Given that his pitch to the lay audience is explicitly toward helping people make changes who have been frustrated by failed attempts (or raised to be part of the “clean plate club”), it’s a good peg.

      I think of it as “self-compassion for mindless eaters” 🙂

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      1. How do you understand mindful eating that using the bowl counts, caitlinburke? I was under the impression it required mindfulness/attentiveness to the eating during the actual eating, not just in food prep or presentation. I’d be super interested to see it defined differently.

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  3. I knew about the research, though not about the researcher himself. I have definitely tried the smaller plate trick. I’m too much of an analyst to fool myself though. I knew perfectly well how much was on the plate. The practice did help me learn to measure quantities by eye (rather than digging out the the measuring cup or weigh scales all the time), and I regularly use containers that hold known quantities for my lunch. I’m disappointed about the news, but it won’t make me change how I pack and serve meals, because they work for me.

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  4. I think it’s important to distinguish between “investigator discredited” and “work discredited.” I would love to see his coauthors on those retracted papers get some support and space to repeat the work with cleaner designs, because the conclusions are generally very rational, and I think most of his work is probably basically right.

    I think it’s also important to distinguish between “it is discredited” and “it would never work for me.” Not every wrinkle of behavioral psychology or cognitive bias applies equally to all. E.g., I don’t misread the quantity in a glass based on its size and shape because I’ve baked for decades and I make vessels that hold certain volumes, so I’m very good at estimating them accurately. However, I succumb quickly to the “easy availability” and “package size = serving size” issues (yes, even while knowing within 10% of calories what I am doing). If I have a bag of salt-water taffy in the house, something happens in my brain that seems to boil down to “THE BEST WAY TO MAKE IT GO AWAY IS TO EAT IT ALL.” So I rarely bring it in the house.

    Same for bits of advice that can have more than one mechanism or relevant context. The small-plate trick works great for me even though I am a great calorie counter. A small plate doesn’t have to “trick” you about quantities – it can just let you avail yourself of the inertia of lower likelihood or frequency of getting up for another serving. (At least, in concert with “serve food in the kitchen, not on the table.”)

    I think in his writing for general audiences, he provided a good buffet of opportunities people can select from to make desired behavior changes around food, and I’m really bummed that he got so caught up in the “publish publish publish” game that he lost sight of best practices. His work wasn’t done in a vacuum, after all, but in a setting of related work from outside his lab, and I hope people don’t end up discarding good information and recommendations just because Wansink gave in so lavishly to the perverse incentives in academic publishing.

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  5. The idea of being mindful isn’t his and his alone. We teach about mindfulness in yoga all the time and apply it to all aspects of living. Mindfulness is a way of taking care of yourself as well as the world around you and that includes the concept of eating whether his research is discredited or not. It’s a way of life that benefits you on many levels.

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