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Brian Wansink '82 Led U.S. Nutrition Organization

Published Thursday, December 27th, 2007

A Sioux City native and Wayne State graduate who's drawn notice for his research into food psychology and mindless movie popcorn eating was named to head a government nutrition entity.

By Bret Hayworth
Sioux City Journal

A Sioux City native and Wayne State graduate who's drawn notice for his research into food psychology and mindless movie popcorn eating was named to head a government nutrition entity.

Brian Wansink, a 1978 East High graduate, received a presidential appointment in 2007 as executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, where through January 2009 he was responsible for development of the 2010 dietary guidelines for Americans. The appointment gave Wansink oversight of the food pyramid guidelines and federal programs such as the Healthy Eating Index.

"The chance to turn around mindless eating in people's lives, I couldn't ask for a greater opportunity or platform to do that," he said of his position.

USDA Undersecretary Nancy Johner noted that Wansink's work has been featured in national media and said the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion was fortunate to have him in the position.

"Dr. Wansink is nationally recognized in his field of nutrition research, which focuses on how to encourage consumers to eat more nutritiously and better control how much they eat," Johner said in a statement.

In late 2006 Wansink released the book "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," which The Associated Press national food critic called "brilliant." Wansink describes how increasingly obese Americans have lost a sense of when they feel full. Americans take their eating cues from environmental factors such as the size of the plate or bowl and from delicious-sounding names for foods.

Wansink fit in a phone interview Nov. 26, 2007, while planning a flight to New York City to tape an appearance on "some women's show" - a reference to the highly popular ABC daytime show "The View." His "View" spot aired Nov. 27, 2007.

Wansink, a 1982 graduate of Wayne State College and son of John and Naomi Wansink of Sioux City, admits to a penchant for breakfasts of Burger King's French toast sticks. He said that's just as well, since someone who eats a sparse diet perhaps isn't the best person to be leading the charge for better eating. Being married to a woman who graduated third in the class from a prestigious Paris culinary school, he said with a hearty laugh, "makes dinnertime really a challenge."

"I eat some snacks I shouldn't, I eat a little more fast food than I should," Wansink admitted, "but it makes me a pretty reasonable role model. Who wants a minister or pastor, for instance, who isn't tempted, like normal people? Who can identify with that?"

"My main goal in 14 months is to expand the pyramid so that it is relevant to seniors, so we have specific guidelines for seniors and specific guidelines for children 2 through 6," he said. Wansink noted all the guidelines "are 100 percent research based, they are empirically, nutritionally driven."

In the "Mindless Eating" book, he wrote that people are much more apt to eat a piece of day-old Black Forest double chocolate cake than plain chocolate cake and drew attention for his research into how movie-popcorn eating is tied to container size.

The "hidden persuaders," Wansink told the Journal in 2006, lurk in "family and friends, packages and plates, names and numbers, labels and lights, colors and candles, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers."

Wansink generally returns to Sioux City twice a year, and on Nov. 29, 2007, he served in his new role in visiting schools in Omaha to look at nutrition programs.

Wansink took a leave of absence from Cornell University, where he was John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing and director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab in the Department of Applied Economics and Management, and moved his family to the Washington, D.C., area. The federal appointment ran through the end of the Bush presidency.