This Fast-Food-Loving, Organics-Hating Ivy League Prof Will Trick You Into Eating Better

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My latest longform piece for Mother Jones is a profile of Cornell behavioral psychologist Brian Wansink, thanks to whom I’ll never deny myself a quesadilla again:

The Chicken Quesadilla Grande is calling to me. I am jet-lagged, starving, and fairly certain that a giant pile of melted cheese will dramatically improve my outlook on life. But right now, in front of a renowned authority on healthy eating? That doesn’t seem like such a great idea.

I’m here at an Applebee’s in Ithaca, New York, where Brian Wansink, a Cornell food psychologist, is evaluating my dining habits. So far, he says, I’ve got a few things going for me: We are seated by the window, which his research has shown makes us 80 percent more likely to order salad. And had we chosen a booth near the bar, our risk of ordering dessert would have been 73 percent greater. I should be glad, he says, that the ceiling lamps are casting a cheery glow and that Paula Cole’s “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” is playing softly; dim lighting and loud music are associated with consuming a lot of calories, not to mention lower satisfaction with the meal.

Maybe it’s thanks to the felicitous environment that, when the waitress arrives, I dutifully order the strawberry-and-avocado salad with grilled chicken. Then it’s Wansink’s turn. “I’ll have the bacon-and-ranch wedge salad,” he says. “Then the French onion soup and the cheeseburger sliders. And a Diet Coke.”

He seems pleased with himself. “I ordered basic comfort food,” he offers cheerfully. “You ordered a little funkier.” I try not to scowl. “If you tell people to be mindful of what they order, they don’t like it as much and they make up for it later,” he explains. “They tell themselves they deserve ice cream since they virtuously ate a salad for dinner.”

Great, I think, as I pick through bagged lettuce topped with rubbery chicken, a few mealy strawberries, and a cluster of stiff avocado slices. Across the table, Wansink is digging into his soup, wrapping long strings of melted Swiss around the spoon. By the time his sliders arrive, he’s so full he can only finish one. He has the waitress pack the other two to go.

Read the full Mother Jones story here.

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