by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
We thought it’d be fun to review a book (in this case Slim by Design) and highlight the kinds of things we noticed that perhaps most readers are not aware of. Before we get started, just bear in mind that this is not a full, exhaustive analysis. Instead, we’d like to share some pointers so when you do read a diet or health book you keep them in mind.
Slim by Design – by Brian Wansink
The Book: Slim by Design: Mindless eating solutions for everyday life.
The Author: Brian Wansink, PhD, a behavioural economist and food psychologist whose mission is to ‘empower people, families, and communities to slim down’. His credentials are very convincing; he is the John Dyson Professor of Marketing and the Director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab. He is also the former White House-appointed Director in charge of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines.
This book isn’t about reductionist diets, taking pills, eating during specified periods or extreme exercise regimes. Instead it focuses on simple changes you can make to your food environment (which includes the retail environment, foods available at home, school and in the workplace) to improve your diet without even realising. It isn’t about saying no to temptation; it’s about asking yourself how much you really want that high calorie treat.
This book was definitely lighter on references than other books we have previously reviewed, with just 55 pages of citations and further reading. But where the evidence doesn’t exist, or the research is observational or from small studies, Wansink makes this clear and does not imply that any of those observations are causal.
To help readers instigate change in their own food environment, Wansink provides 13 pages of example letters, emails and tweets which can be sent by you to schools, restaurants and work places to request change. And if that wasn’t enough, there is 22 pages of contact details for all your favourite grocery stores, fast food chains and restaurants (ok, only if you live in America but you get the idea!).
The top 3 highlights
1. The main highlight of this book is its simplicity. Using psychology, Wansink provides quick easy solutions to improving your diet. Many of which are low or even no cost. Move your junk food to the top of the cupboard (out of sight, and maybe out of mind), replace your bowl of candy on your desk work desk with fruit, or ask your favourite restaurant a reduced portion or half to be boxed before it arrives (which isn’t an unusual request if you live in America).
2. “It’s easier to be slim by design than be slim by willpower”. Wansink highlights that it is easier to change the environment than change your mind, and this book shows you several strategies for that.
3. Once you’ve finished reading this book, it’ll leave you with few excuses for not making changes. Wansink provides ways to identify what needs changing, such as scorecards which can be used to assess your eating environment. Then he uses experimental examples to show you how to make those changes.
Slim by Design is more than a book about diets. Instead, this book is more of a practical guide to improving your health through your food environment. Whether it is encouraging your local supermarket to remove unhealthy snacks at till points, asking your workplace to improve the staff room, or putting sliced fruit in your fridge, this book will give you suggestions on how to do it.
The idea that the food environment could affect people’s ability to remain at a healthy weight is not a new one. In 2002, Swinburn and Egger defined the ‘obesogenic environment’ and characterised this as “the sum of influences that the surroundings, opportunities, or conditions of life have on promoting obesity in individuals or populations”.
The UK Foresight Report identified the food environment of one of the factors which influence food choice and eating behaviours. While these concepts might suggest the removal of personal responsibility, Wansink argues this couldn’t be further from the truth. He says, ”there are lots of personal ways you can start to become slim by design, but they all start with your home”.
Your food radius
Based on the premise that ”becoming slim by design works better than trying to become slim by ”willpower”, Wansink focuses on changing the environment so willpower is no longer tested. Instead of focusing on what makes us fat, he looks at how we can be slim… a refreshing change among a long list of books telling us what makes us fat, or what not to eat, or which ‘dietary ideology’ we should convert to.
Wansink focuses on making subtle changes in five eating environments that can sabotage good intentions, or what he calls your ‘food radius’:
- work, and
Whether you decide just to declutter your kitchen, or to become a healthy-eating evangelist, the message is clearly focused towards personal responsibility (i.e. you are responsible for changing your food environment).
Assess your food environment
After reviewing scientific evidence and observational studies, Wansink challenges the reader to assess their own food environments. What does your work canteen look like? Where do you keep tortilla chips at home? What do your children see at a supermarket checkout? Once you have completed a simple assessment, Wansink clearly outlines specific changes that he believes might help improve your and your family’s health.
These changes could be as small as reducing the size of dinner plates at home, or as daunting as contacting your favourite restaurant and asking them to reduce the size of their dinner plates. Studies consistently link plate size with increased serving size and increased food consumption, but this concept is nothing new.
There’s a lot more science beyond just plate size – for example, in our science reports, we found that even the colour of the plate you use can affect consumption (see here), or even unsuspected things like smell may trigger us to overeat (more here)
Several brain triggers for overconsumption are leaved out, and this book certainly doesn’t touch on appetite neurochemistry. So if that’s a subject you really want to master, take a look our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Practitioner Certification (you can download the full curriculum here).
The practical advice
Wansink leaves very few excuses for not instigating change. The easy assessments, or ‘scorecards’, and the advice are useful, but they do get a little repetitive. They are also included in each chapter, often more than once. Some of these scorecards are 7 pages long; perhaps a separate section of collated ‘scorecards’ would have helped with the flow of the book.
Although it is unlikely that the repetition was an accident, Wansink really wants the reader to be critically analysing their food environment. Once you have scored your environment, Wansink provides a variety of practical ideas, from campaign letters to sample tweets to support your personal initiative to adapt your food environment. If you read this book and are serious about changing your food environment, Wansink gives you several useful tools you can use to start.
What sort of lifestyle do you have?
Wansink says that all lifestyles can be categorised within one of five groups. Once you know where your lifestyle fits, Wansink tells you where you might be able to prioritise environmental changes to improve your health and determine your own ‘slim-by-design action plan’. It is worth noting that these lifestyle categories do not appear to be evidence-based, but are instead constructed around commonly-observed behaviours and seem fairly descriptive!
But, where’s the scientific evidence?
This book does lack the weight of scientific evidence. However, Wansink doesn’t hide this, and he indicates throughout which evidence is anecdotal, observational, or where the science doesn’t exist. Most of the references come from Wansink’s own group at Cornell, but they are one of the leaders in consumer psychology, so this is perhaps to be expected. Where it may lack in concrete scientific evidence, it makes up for with snippets of Wansink’s field work.
There are some very interesting examples of projects commissioned by individuals or organisations to make their food environment ‘slim by design’. Bornholm Island is an excellent example of such a project. The Danish government asked Wansink and his team to help change the grocery stores on the entire island to help inhabitants eat healthier. Using methods described throughout the book, these supermarkets made low cost but effective changes (based on early results), and other Danish public health movements are also keen to be a part of this change. Not exactly scientific, but the observed outcomes show promising results.
Many of the solutions to make your environment ‘slim by design’ aren’t ground-breaking – for example, if you can see unhealthy (but tasty) food and have easy access to it, you are more likely to eat it (see What influences our food choices?).
However, Wansink does provide evidence that if you swap your food with healthier options and make them more physically accessible, you will also be more likely to eat them. This has been shown to be particularly effective with children.
There is also a lot of focus on the wider food environment: restaurants, shops, work canteens, and school lunchrooms. Whilst Wansink provides plenty of information and resources to encourage readers to actively try to change policy within these environments, without the credentials and influence, this may seem like a daunting task, but not impossible!
Beyond the book
This book can be viewed more as a resource than a novel. So rather than reading it from cover to cover, you can simply jump to those sections that interest you the most. The mini-assessments are repeated throughout, so you can test your own food environment and see if you deserve a gold star!
Choose the food environment where you would most like to affect change and start there. Once you have decluttered your own kitchen, you might be ready to take on your staff canteen or local supermarket. This is a fun, practical guide that you can keep consulting at any time for different circumstances.
To read or not to read
If you are someone that likes to settle down with a good book accompanied by a cup of tea and a chocolate biscuit… read on! Wansink might tell you where to keep the biscuits so you can change that behaviour.
Entertainment value: 3/5 Impartiality: 1/5 Context and completeness: 3/5 New discoveries: 3/5 Readability: 5/5 Scientific references: 2/5 Our total score: 3/5
Entertainment value: 3/5
Context and completeness: 3/5
New discoveries: 3/5
Scientific references: 2/5
Our total score: 3/5
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Alex Ruani leads the research division at The Health Sciences Academy, where she and her team make sense of complex scientific literature and translate it into easy-to-understand practical concepts for students. She is a Harvard-trained scientific researcher who specialises in cravings and appetite neurobiology, nutrition biochemistry, and nutrigenomics. Besides investigating and teaching the latest advances in health and nutrition science, Alex makes it easier to be smarter with her free Science Catch-ups every other Thursday.