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February 19, 2013

Reduce obesity by offering consumers choices

(Continued)

WASHINGTON —

In one of Wansink's fiendish experiments, people were provided with a large bowl of Campbell's tomato soup and told to eat as much as they liked. Unbeknownst to them, the soup bowls were engineered to refill themselves (with empty bottoms connected to machinery beneath the table). No matter how much soup the subjects ate, the bowl never emptied. The result? Soup consumption skyrocketed. Many people just kept eating until the experiment was ended.

The good news is that once we isolate the sources of excessive eating, we will be able to identify potential solutions. Google found that its New York cafeteria, which offered a lot of high-calorie items, was producing a lot of unwanted pounds. In response to employee complaints, it initiated changes to nudge people toward healthier choices. Large plates and takeout containers were exchanged for smaller sizes, and employees were encouraged to eat less with a sign stating, "People who take big plates tend to eat more."

The redesigned cafeteria took a number of smart steps to make healthy choices simpler and more convenient (and to make less healthy choices less so). As a result, it helped to produce big reductions in both calories and fat consumed from candy.

A striking feature of the Google initiative was that employees were grateful for the nudges. There is reason to think that many consumers would respond the same way. In a series of studies, researchers told fast-food servers to ask customers whether they wanted to "downsize" their high-calorie side dishes. A substantial number (from 14 percent to 33 percent of those served) consistently agreed to do so. Strikingly, they accepted the offer whether or not they were offered a nominal 25 cent discount. Their total calorie consumption was reduced, on average, by more than 200.

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