Shortcut to Slim

Season 2: Episode 9

When you want to rebel

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Welcome to Shortcut to Slim a research-based podcast on dieting and nutrition, brought to you by Meal Mentor and Happy Herbivore. I’m your host Lindsay S. Nixon.

Before I formally end Season 2, I wanted to touch on media hoopla that happened back in February with Brian Wansink.

If you don’t know who Wansink is, he authored one of my favorite books, Mindless Eating, as well as Slim By Design and a few others. He’s currently and has been working as marketing and consumer behavior researcher and professor at Cornell University for several years. ([Wikipedia bio: “Brian Wansink is an American professor in the fields of consumer behavior and marketing research. He is the former executive director of the USDA's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion (CNPP) (2007–2009) and holds the John S. Dyson Endowed Chair in the Applied Economics and Management Department at Cornell University, where he is director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.”)

Last I checked he’s been quoted or contributed to some 250,000 papers, books, or other periodicals. To say I’m a fangirl, would be an understatement. He’s my personal and professional hero, my muse, my inspiration.

His books and behavior modification suggestions have been t-r-a-n-s-f-o-r-m-a-t-i-v-e in my life professionally and personally.

Here’s what happened:

Earlier this year, Wansink’s research was ‘attacked’ via a string of media articles which led him to facing scientific misconduct allegations, which I’ll detail in a minute.

The whole ‘bombshell’ happened rather strangely on my personal timeline. In late part of last year (2017) Goodreads asked it’s twitter followers who their non-fiction writer was. I’d replied “Brian Wansink” and someone I didn’t know replied to MY tweet saying “He’s a fiction writer.”

I thought that was odd, or maybe that person was confused, so I let it go.

Then a few weeks later emails starting coming in.

Here’s an example:

“Hi Lindsay... Are you aware or familiar with the discrediting of Brian Wansink? Can you comment?”

I had absolutely no idea what was going on, which seemed strange since I practically stalk Wansink and the Cornell Food Lab. I thought FOR SURE I would be “in the know.”
As more emails or comments came in, including some mean-spirited onces asking me how I felt now that my hero fell from grace or saying that *I* was no discredited because I had previously lauded someone who was now being discredited--don’t worry I’ll get to all this in a minute…

I had a sick sense of de ja vu.

A few years ago, another researcher I respect, and this one I happen to know personally, came under a similar scrutiny. I’m talking about Dr. T. Colin Campbell and The China Study.

I figured, like Colin, Wansink, was the latest “it” guy -- the person whose career and work would be picked apart and attacked by some blogger or researcher trying to make a name for themselves or who wanted media attention (everyone loves a circus) or whose career path had stalled and so the new plan was to ripping apart someone else’s work to gain status or

(Hey I’m no saint, I do it too--this whole podcast is about blowing the lid of quote-unquote facts and myths)....

Anyway, I figured that’s what it was, and what I’ve seen happen in the months since makes me think there is definitely a little truth to that… but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Point is, I wasn’t paying much attention until late February when someone I knew, and by know I mean we follow each other on social media and engage sometimes, reached out to me about it.

Specifically, she sent me a link to an article on Buzz Feed.

Buzzfeed isn’t exactly where I go for facts or scientific inquiry, so I didn’t pay much attention to it and said as much to my pal. She replied that she doesn’t go to Buzz Feed as a source either, but that Buzz Feed was basically covering or breaking the story, and it had citations elsewhere.

By then other media outlets like Vox and the New York Times had their own similar articles or reporting so I started to pay a little more attention.

Before I dig in, I need to say this: Witch hunts and controversy always sell, yet at the root of any controversy or claim, there is always some little tiny bit of truth tucked inside. It’s always there, even if it’s as small as a grain of salt, no matter how ugly the motives are…

I accept this and look for it -- I look for that grain of sand. I know and deeply accept, and hope you do too, that even with researchers or institutions I like and trust, I know mistakes will and do happen, and too that researchers and journalists and (including me) bring their own bias, which makes them interpret data in their favor at times, even if they aren’t aware they are doing it when reading the data or science.

In fact, there are now ample studies dedicated to this, one of which concluded with looming conclusions that “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False” so we should, quite, literally, take everything with a grain of salt.

There’s also the growing problem of p-hacking (defined as “A focus on novel, confirmatory, and statistically significant results leads to substantial bias in the scientific literature. One type of bias, known as “p-hacking,” occurs when researchers collect or select data or statistical analyses until nonsignificant results become significant.”), but I’ve digressed. (If you want to know more about p-hacking, I’ve included a few links in the show notes below).

The whole scientific community gets this, by the way, which is why peer reviews exist and data has to be replicated several times in several different trials.

What I’m trying to say about my opinion of the situation is this:

Seeing the humanness of Wansink, or Campbell means only that I remain vigilant about having an open mind, following the science as it is presented, prepare myself that it may change and I may need to radically change my mind and what I know as truth again, and so on.

Any negative things I might say or reveal here about Wansink only endear him more to me.

I don’t think it’s ironic that the daily quote that came up for me today during my morning meditation was this:

“I like flaws and feel more comfortable around people who have them. I myself am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” - Augusten Burroughs

The accusations that came out against Wansink and is food lab were for inconsistencies in how his lab handled data and conducted some of the experiments.

As far as I can tell, the main issue the complainers or “haters” have is this: Wansink isn’t a scientist enough, or his work isn’t scientific enough, his work isn’t ‘real’ science, blah blah.

It seems if everyone (and especially the media) would stop calling Wansink a “scientist” and his work “science” they wouldn’t be so bothered.

Actually, here is a tweet from one of these folks that I think sums up their opinion quite well,

Power poses and pizza preferences are not "science."
They are junk psychology generated by junk psychologists as junk entertainment for undemanding audiences. It is offensive to hear hucksters like Cuddy and Wansink referred to as "scientists.'

What’s funny to me is Wansink is a Professor of MARKETING in Cornell's College of Business. Has been all along.

[sidebar: Amy Cuddy is a feminist social psychologist who came under fire for her female power pose. If you’re unfamiliar, Cuddy presented her research in a 2010 TED talk, where she said that if a person spends 2 minutes in this pose she will feel more powerful… that female subjects who did it were shown to have higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol, and took more risks in a gambling task.” The power pose was meant to give women greater confidence, so the gender gap would go away. As cuddy and her pose were garnering accolades in the media, Her goals were honorable but just as it started to gain momentum in the media, statistics-minded critics pointed out major flaws in how she conducted her experiments, basically saying there was room for false-positive conclusions.]

Anyway circling back to the matter with Wansink…

I’ve gotten ahead of myself again, circling back to late February and what happened…

The friend I mentioned was Dr. Janet Frick, a psychologist at UGA who works in the peer review area herself and understand how all this works at a larger level.

She reached out to me to discuss the allegations as they were happening. Like me, Frick was a huge follower of his and tried to incorporate his ‘finding’ into her life as much as possible.

She also offered to look up a few more "academically rigorous" critiques if I was interested and get back to me.

Here was what she said:

“OK, so I’ve done a bit of digging around on this, and what I can tell you as a scientific research at a research-1 university is that the number of retractions and corrections that BW has had to issue over his work is highly unusual. This is not normal for well-run labs.

The thing to pay attention to is not where the investigative journalism is being published, whether it be buzz feed or Washington Post. The thing to pay attention to is the substance of the reporting. The open records emails are troubling.

Retractions and corrections of published peer-reviewed papers are unusual. It’s an embarrassment to have that happen. It can happen due to certain types of oversight but to have an ongoing pattern of them is highly unusual. I know it may seem like a witchhunt but I don’t consider this to be of the same caliber as the bloggers that were coming against Dr. Campbell. He had solid science to back him up.

Anyway, none of this takes away from my respect for your work or the validity of your approach. I don’t consider this any sort of a “gotcha“ about the importance of behavioral change in weight loss. Mostly as a scientist I just want to be cautious about someone who has had a pattern of “massaging data“ to get publications and press coverage. I know firsthand the pressures that comes at the top ranks of academia toward publishing and I know this type of thing probably happens a lot more than many of us are aware of.

Honestly, all of us who publish in peer reviewed journals need to be ready for “the mob“ to come after our work. We need to have our ducks in a row and be ready to answer questions. If we work at a public university, or we have federal funding, that is part of the deal. We can be audited and have our data investigated at anytime. We all know that.”

In case I lost you back there, some of Wansink’s published papers have been retracted or a correction has been issued after a couple of researchers/bloggers/journalists went on a mission to find problems and “bring him down.”

At the time of this recording, 7 of his papers have been retracted and 15 have been amended, out of HUNDREDS he has published.

Even with all these people busily trying to find problems, they aren’t finding that many. It all started with what the media is calling “the pizza papers” and regarding those papers, Cornell, which did it’s own investigation (hence those allegations I mentioned earlier) issued a statement that while Wansink did make a mistake he did not engage in scientific misconduct and he still works for them.

Wansink’s methods are still criticized and bothersome to some scientists (I’ll call them purists) while others accept that when it comes to social psychology and human behavior, you can’t be pure. People don’t live in test tubes or labs. Indeed, we now have empirical evidence showing a high unreliability of results in both psychology and food science, period.

There are also some people who are upset by his emails, which I’ll return to in moment.

Others have lamented about a potential chilling effect or future loss of transparency this whole event might cause:

Essayst Tim Schwab wrote, “Public shaming may offer a sense of catharsis, but it also puts scientists on the defensive, afraid to openly address their own scientific methods.”

I feel this way too, especially since I’m about to reveal the findings of my first study in the next episode (!)

But enough about me and back to Wansink.

The final thing Janet said to me, and I said this to her at the exact same time---prompting Janet to say “jinx” and both of us giggle like school girls…

“Whether it's "true" or not, I still follow Wansink's advice, or at least try to! :) :)”

SO my question is this… if his "findings" changed my life and many others so if he came to it in the wrong way and it still works, where does that leave us?!

I think this is ultimately what this entire season has been about.

If you believe.

There is a great power in your mindset.

We saw that in every episode this season, particularly with Crum’s research that showed

The Effect you Expect is the Effect you Get.

Remember the
- Housecleaners who started perceiving themselves as exercise superstars and perceiving their work as exercise and not “hard labor” that lost weight and changed their blood pressure and overall health but not their diet or exericse.
- OR the WWI sailors who were so desperate for cherry Jell-o that when they were served lemon Jell-o with red food dye they believed it was cherry and thanked the chef for finding it.
- And my personal favorite, the milkshake study where participants were given one milk sheet labeled “indulgent treat” one week, and the following week they had one labeled “sensi-shake” that was noted as lower in fat and calories. As the participants drank, blood samples were taken. Given the caloric difference, the levels of ghrelin should have been very different, and they were, but here’s the catch: the participants drank the same shake both weeks. The labels were fake (!!) I KNOW.

All the of groundbreaking studies I shared this season show how your perception, your mindset, what you BELIEVE, can dramatically change the body’s response, even at a hormonal level.

From the moment I read most of Wansink’s tips or food ideas, they clicked for me. It was more than simply sounding plausible… deep inside myself I already knew they were true because it worked with my own experiences.

I believed, followed, and put it into practice to see for myself whether it was true or not and that is the best advice I can give you. If it makes sense TO YOU, then believe it, try it, go with it.

Many of this already do this every day, except we call it (religious) faith.

If you need to collect more evidence, then do it, but preferably with your own personalized real-world experience. That is the ultimate litmus test.

One researcher wrote, “But how about those clever-seeming food ideas I listed at the top of this article? They all sound plausible–and they might all be true. The problem is that the science supporting them is deeply flawed, so we just don't know.”

But do we really? Or is that just another distraction.

Bottom line: If you don’t believe something will work, it won’t. If you think you’ll fail, you probably will, but if you think this will work and I will succeed, you have a fighting chance. Self-fulfilling prophecies are very real. Your mindset matters and we have purist-approved science to support that.

I often tell my private clients and folks doing my blueprint:

“You don't need to read more about that. More education is just procrastination. It allows you to feel you have accomplished something without doing anything differently. Weight-loss only rewards action takers. Action is better than learning.”

Of course, I want you to listen to this podcast, but it would really light me up to know you’re doing it while walking or preparing the recipes on the Blueprint or this week’s meal plan.

All this information is great but knowing/learning/information doesn’t bring changes, taking ACTION brings changes.

To close out the Wansink issue, Cornell investigated and said he made mistakes but there was no scientific misconduct. A few emails written by Wansink about how the could phrase things to make findings more socially attractive or viral were also leaked and this too was held against Wansink. Again, he’s a professor of MARKETING, why is him wanting things to go viral so surprising?!

When looking back over the emails and comments I sent as this hoopla was happening, and reviewing what other “defenders” said, I found another central theme that has come up a lot this year with my private clients and the release of my Shortcut to Slim Blueprint.

Here are a few quotes or points made by me and other ‘defenders’

  • You can’t “prove” a hypothesis. You can find evidence that’s consistent with a hypothesis but logically you can’t prove. There could always be another, as yet unthought of hypothesis, that may come to rule the day.
  • Even extremely well-grounded theories (e.g., evolution) can be refined.
  • Physics, for example, has its share of "fudge factors" out there (e.g. dark matter).

My (completely non-expert) feeling on this is that there are 10 billion variables anytime you involve a single human, you can’t perfectly prove anything and if it helps, it helps. You have to be your own investigative reporter.

Which brings me back to that central theme I mentioned… Sitting and asking yourself WHY.

(This is my response when people on my blueprint start asking questions like “can I add spinach” or “can I have a extra hummus?” or “can I add splenda/stevia to my coffee?” or “can I add greens to that?”

"I encourage you to ask yourself why you need this? Why do you want to add it? Why do you need it? Why isn’t the meal enough for you? Why are you already looking at the meal as not enough? Why are you arbitrarily seeking to add more when the goal is less? Should you wait and see first? Why do you need to enhance your food? Aren’t you hear to learn how eat more biologically? If you’re feeling rebellious or defiant ask yourself why that is."

Or phrased another way:

“What idea or thought are you trying to validate?”

I’m going to repeat that. What idea or thought or desires (wants) are YOU trying to validate? (and maybe also ask why you need the validation… is it so you can keep doing what you’re doing and not do the work you know you need to do?)

As a closing thought, I like the saying that “rationalize” sounds nearly identical to “rational lies.”

And I want to remind you that it takes a great deal of courage to change your thoughts and perceptions because we feel blame, guilt, and shame when we go against what we believe or already accepted as truth.

It’s important to remember that and remember that feelings of definance are usually signs that you’re on to something... and that it’s working because, our brains try to protect us from pain and discomfort, which are necessary for change. All change, even good-for-you change is grief. You will go through all the stages, and that’s where most of us become at risk for faltering. Knowing what you feel is part of the progression, part of the healing process helps. You have to walk through it, you have to get on the other side of surrender and acceptance, and you do that by being faithful and trusting the process (at all costs).

When I’m leading a group of people through my weight-loss Blueprint, I often have to say this bluntly, “Your way is obviously not working perfectly for you. If it was, you wouldn’t be here. Why not try something else, something you know works and has proven results? It’s just two weeks. You don’t have to do the whole two weeks today. Start with “Couldn’t I just…” Couldn’t you just eat this breakfast?”

And, too, when people challenge me or combat me or the science, or are otherwise defiant, I don’t engage. It’s not that I don’t like skepticism, I actually encourage curiosity and skepticism, but I also don’t defend, justify, argue, or explain further because I know that I don’t need to.

If you believe you already know everything, and you have all the answers, I can’t help you. There’s no room for more information or a conversation in that kind of space.

Your mindset has to be right for anything to work because your thoughts and perceptions set the tone for everything else that happens in your body, in your life, and on your plate.

You’ve been listening to shortcut to slim, a research-based podcast brought to you buy Happy Herbivore and Meal Mentor. I’m you’re host Lindsay S. Nixon and in the next episode I’m going to share with you the findings of a study I conducted this summer. If you struggle with negative self-talk, have or have had depression in the past, struggle with feeling happy most days, OR you’d simply like to improve your mood, feel more confident, feel happier/less depressed, and improve your strength and coordination, do not miss the next episode. I’m going to be sharing ALL the results and what you can take an apply to yourself immediately.

To learn more about my weight-loss Blueprint visit

Thank you for listening. If what you’ve heard here has been helpful please rate this podcast in iTunes and share it with a friend.

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