Brian Wansink, author of bestsellers like Mindless Eating and Slim by Design, recently had 13 of his research articles retracted and was nudged right out of his job as director of Cornell Food and Brand Lab, earning a spot on my list of 2018’s biggest wellness stories.
Even if you’ve never heard of Brian Wansink, you’ve probably been affected by his research. His studies, cited more than 20,000 times, are about how our environment shapes how we think about food, and what we end up consuming. He’s one of the reasons Big Food companies started offering smaller snack packaging, in 100 calorie portions. — Vox
Wansink led many headline-grabbing studies of eating behavior, showing, for example, that people eat less when food is served on smaller plates and that pre-ordering lunch leads to healthier choices. His work unleashed many employers’ nutritional wellness strategies, especially “making the healthy choice the easy choice.”
The media ate up Google’s implementations of Wansink’s “tricks” at their employee eateries, and wellness managers, like the rest of America, were sold, stocking the healthier vending machine options at eye level, featuring more nutritious foods near cafeteria entrances, serving on smaller plates, shutting down buffets, and changing the name of the daily special from “Tilapia” to “Succulent Italian Seafood Filet.” (Ask me why the “succulent, descriptive menu-item names trick” backfired when I tried it in an employee cafeteria).
According to the Cornell provost, Wansink’s academic misconduct included “the misreporting of research data, problematic statistical techniques, failure to properly document and preserve research results, and inappropriate authorship.” — Vox
(Also see: Here’s How Cornell Scientist Brian Wansink Turned Shoddy Data Into Viral Studies About How We Eat — BuzzFeed news investigative report.)
Dr. Wansink’s fall from grace is first on my list because it sounds a clarion call to our industry and to business leaders: Be wary of gimmicky research and employee wellness fads. It’s a lesson, as you’ll see in the other stories on my 2018 Top 10 list, that bears repeating.