Crucial Skills®

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Slim by Design: An Interview with Brian Wansink

Any time one of our Influencers publishes new research, we pay attention. These are people with a track record of success that proves they’re experts at changing behavior. Brian Wansink is just one of those influencers. His research on eating behavior contributed to the introduction of smaller “100 calorie” packages (to prevent overeating), the use of taller glasses in bars (to prevent the overpouring of alcohol), and the removal of 500 million calories from restaurants each year (via Unilever’s Seductive Nutrition program). He was appointed by the White House to help develop the 2010 Dietary Guidelines and Food Guide Pyramid. He is also a good friend of VitalSmarts. In fact, you’ll recognize him from our very own Influencer Training.

Brian has new research that he’s published in his latest book, Slim By Design. I was immediately impressed by his Source 6 approach (the influence of the environment) to improve our health. He was kind enough to answer a few questions I thought our newsletter readers would find applicable for their own influence efforts to stay healthy. So without further ado…

Joseph: The subtitle of your new book, Slim by Design, is “Mindless eating solutions for everyday life.” Shouldn’t we be mindful of what we eat?

Brian: For ninety percent of us, the solution to mindless eating is not mindful eating—our lives are just too crazy and our willpower is too wimpy. Instead, the solution is to tweak small things in our homes, favorite restaurants, supermarkets, workplaces, and schools so we mindlessly eat less and better instead of more. It’s easier to use a small plate, face away from the buffet, and sit a Frisbee-spin away from the bread basket than it is to be a martyr on a hunger strike. Willpower is hard and has to last a lifetime. That is one of the great things about your Influencer Model—you emphasize that a huge part of changing behavior is changing your environment. Slim by Design focuses exactly on how you do it to eat better and lose weight.

Joseph: Yes, but not all the ideas you write about in Slim by Design are directly related to food. What’s one you found most surprising and how are you incorporating it into your life?

Brian: We all intuitively know that we probably eat worse when we’re in a bad mood than when we’re in a good mood. But there’s both good news and bad news here. The bad news is that even if we’re only in a slightly bad mood—tough day at work, mediocre report card, etc.—it dramatically worsens what and how much we eat at mealtime. The good news is that it takes very little to turn that mood around. In one of our studies, we simply asked people to describe one thing that happened that day that they were grateful for, and they ate twelve percent fewer calories. They even ate more vegetables!

Within two days of discovering this, I changed what my family and I do before mealtime. Before both breakfast and lunch, I think of one thing that’s happened in my day that I’m grateful for. At dinnertime, I have a slightly different routine. Each person in the family shares what happened that day by answering four questions: 1) their high point, 2) their low point, 3) who they appreciate most and why, and 4) their plan for tomorrow. It gives us a chance to celebrate the good things that happen, realize that each of us has daily disappointments, thank a person who helped us out, and to raise our eyes toward the future. All three of my daughters get their moment in the sun, and it makes me happy to see each one shine. On most days, this is one of the most crucial conversations I have.

Joseph: Slim by Design is not only about changing your habits, but it’s also about creating a movement. Can you elaborate?

Brian: The Slim by Design movement is about taking small actions in the five places that booby-trap most of our eating: our home, our favorite restaurants, our corner grocery store, our office, and our child’s school lunchroom. These are small concrete, actionable solutions that my Cornell University Food and Brand Lab has developed, tested, analyzed, and tweaked in dozens of cities across the United States and abroad. To make your life slim by design, you don’t have to change the whole world—just focus on these five places or zones. You can think globally, but eat locally. All you need to do is to 1) change what you do in each of these places, and 2) let them know how they could help you eat less and eat better.

For each location or zone, there’s a starter ten-point scorecard that will give you an initial idea of whether these places are making you slim or fat. There are also specific steps you can make to change things. Best yet, you don’t need any special skills to make these changes. All you need to know is what to do—and how to ask these places and people around you to help. I love the work you folks do at VitalSmarts, and this whole movement idea is based on your Influencer approach. It’s making influencers out of each of us. We’ll not only be influencing ourselves and our family, but also our neighbors and our community. We’re adding influence sources three and four to a powerful source six strategy.

Joseph: How do I know whether my home is making me slim by design or fat by design?

Brian: My previous book, Mindless Eating, contained about 150 proven, workable weight-loss tips we’d discovered from our studies in homes. Since that time, we’ve discovered many more tips that relate specifically to your home—such as your kitchen, cupboards, refrigerator, table, and TV room—and combined the 100 easiest ones into a Slim by Design Home Scorecard. It helps you quickly troubleshoot how a home is adding unwanted pounds and it shows exactly what changes will reverse this. For example, it will ask you things like, is the kitchen organized? Is there fruit on the counter? Is the toaster put away? To get you started, here’s an abbreviated ten-point version of the scorecard to help you see if you’re on track.

Joseph: Where should a person start?

Brian: Start with the scorecards. First, go to the website and fill out the Slim by Design scorecards for each of the five different zones. You can then share the results on Facebook or Twitter or send one of the suggested letters so that your restaurant, grocery store, work site, and child’s school lunchroom knows how they’re doing in helping to make you Slim by Design. Second, you can read Slim by Design for more ideas. Third you can follow and interact with us on social media. For more fun tips from Brian, watch his video message to our readers!

All the best,

Want to win a copy of Slim By Design?

Brian has been kind enough to share twenty books with our newsletter readers. To be entered into a drawing to win a book, please forward this newsletter to a friend who you think could benefit from these skills or share it on your social account. Send an email to and let us know that you shared it and we’ll enter you into our book drawing

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2 thoughts on “Slim by Design: An Interview with Brian Wansink”

  1. Joseph Parent

    Your principle of using environment and other cues that influence our eating behavior are excellent. It’s a big part of my diet program and upcoming book, “The Zen of Dieting.”
    However, I wouldn’t call it mindless, because in regard to all the tips and changes, you’re asking people to be MINDFUL of their environment, of remembering to express gratitude, etc.
    Recognizing which locations help and which don’t, as well as changing habits, requires mindfulness of where you are and what you’re doing.
    And I agree – making those environmental changes makes better eating happen in a natural, unforced way that makes the habits more likely to last.

    Keep up the good work – it will make people healthier and happier!
    (By the way, nice to see your lab is at Cornell – I’m an alum).

    Joseph Parent, Ph.D.
    Author of Zen Golf: Mastering the Mental Game

  2. Lila Stageberg, MD

    The term “Mindless Eating” makes an excellent point because you have to be mindful, but only once. When you are feeling strong and clear, you consider your areas that influence your eating, and make decisions THEN that allow you to be mindless and on autopilot later. This is the best use of the cognitive skills our brains now layer on top of the lizard brain.

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