Slim By Design: How to Change Your Environment (and your waistline)

Is your house making your fat? It's possible that the urge to reach for a cookie instead of an apple or to dig into second and third helpings really isn't our fault. According to food psychologist Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab, our environment is the biggest predictor of whether or not we have healthy eating habits. He's identified what he calls the "five zones" where most of our eating and food choices occur — home, favorite restaurants, workplace, grocery stores and our kids' schools. In his new book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (William Morrow), he explains how each affects us and how we can take more control.

How is this book different from a typical diet book?

Most diets purport that the only way to get slimmer is by using willpower. They tell you that you need to follow a specific food plan, cut this out, count calories. And if you actually have the willpower to do all that, you probably will lose weight. But for the other 90 percent of us, it's not going to work. Instead, we need to rearrange our lives and our environments so that the things that cause us to overeat are modified or removed.

Why is our environment such a powerful influence?

We think we're smarter than the things around us — and that the size of our plates or location of fruit in the kitchen will have nothing to do with how we eat. But environment is a major force. And that's actually a great thing, because it's something we can change. If eating better was all about willpower, most of us would be in big trouble.

Changing our environments actually sounds like a pretty daunting task. Can we really make enough of a difference to affect our eating habits?

There are several really simple changes you can make to your surroundings that can have a huge impact. For example, in our research, we found that people who had a fruit bowl on their kitchen counters weighed an average of eight pounds less than neighbors without one, that dividing your grocery cart in half leads to buying 23 percent more fruits and vegetables, and that workers who kept a candy dish two meters away instead of on their desk ate 48 percent less.

But what about environmental forces we can't control — like what’s served in our kids' school cafeteria or how large a portion you get at a restaurant?

The bigger idea of the book is empowering people to get others to change. We want this to become a movement that reaches well beyond the book. That's why we’ve included sample letters that you can send to restaurants, schools and grocery stores, to encourage these places to help you be "slim by design." We also have sample tweets and other ways to reach out to help you affect change.

Where's the best place to start trying to make your environment 'slimmer?'

Start at home. You can download a 10-point scorecard to rate whether your home is making you fat or slim by design. If you only score a 3 out of 10, there are 7 things you can do right away to change it. For example, start plating food in the kitchen instead of bringing serving bowls to the table, turn off the TV during dinner, and organize your kitchen counters.

Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.

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