Liz McGinness admits that she approaches some things with gung-ho enthusiasm.
She loved Brian Wansink's bestseller "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," about how people make hundreds of decisions each day about food. Eating an extra 100 calories a day — often without realizing it — can easily pack on 10 pounds a year.
So, she e-mailed Wansink.
"I told him, 'We love this book. You are a genius.' I can be kind of flattering," she said. "And then I told him we want to launch this as a book study for the Wichita public schools."
Thing is, Wansink, former director of the USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and director of the food and brand lab at Cornell University, can be equally gung ho.
He volunteered to come to Wichita — for free.
Wansink is scheduled to speak tonight to help the school district launch a new weight loss program.
Wansink also will talk about his book and the nation's obesity epidemic, and about his online program, for which he typically charges $20 a month.
Wansink is the one who inspired the 100-calorie packages now in vending machines and in grocery stores across the nation.
Wansink believes a person's environment cues their eating habits. People will eat far more than they need or realize based on the size of their plates, glasses, serving bowls, eating while watching TV or having food in easy reach.
Wansink's research focuses on how food ads and packaging cause us to eat more of less-healthy foods.
For example, according to his book, office workers ate nearly three times as much chocolate when bowls of sweets were on their desks rather than six feet away on a file cabinet. People eating with a friend consumed 35 percent more than when they ate alone. And they consumed 22 percent more calories when eating from a 12-inch plate than from a 10-inch plate.
Changing just a few things can lead to a healthier lifestyle over time, he said.
He proposed coming to Wichita and helping the employees with Wichita district — and any other residents in Wichita — participate in his software program "Mindless Matters."
Participants register and go online every 30 days to answer questions about their eating challenges; based on their answers, the software offers one or two suggestions and participants pick the ones they want to follow.
The program also sends e-mail reminders to help participants track their weight, water intake and progress.
He is offering school district employees a substantial discount.
For some personality types, Wansink said, having a formal program such as an online virtual community for support can make it easier to lose and maintain weight.
"If there is a band of brothers to do things with, it makes it easier to exercise and in some cases eat better," he said. "The biggest thing is making the right, small, consistent changes. Making one small change consistently has all these great consequences."
Liz McGinness, who has lost 10 pounds over the past six months, said she loves Wansink's philosophy that the "best diet is the diet you don't know you are on."
"As a person who has struggled with weight issues from the third grade, I want everyone else to experience the success that comes from this approach," she said. "It is not a diet. It is not about measuring food or counting calories. It's about changing your environment in small ways that can have a big impact."
She did it, she said, by getting smaller plates, and by practicing "the napkin of invisibility" — placing a napkin over her dish when she is done eating — or by taking dinner intermission breaks, where she stops midway through a meal for 20 minutes.
"I hope we get healthier and reduce the overall health care costs for the school district," McGinness said. "I think by doing this, people will feel better about themselves. It is not a draconian type of thing. It is not painful."
Wansink said he agreed to come to Wichita because he was intrigued by the school district's health and wellness program and wanted to help with the incentives.
The district began Take Off Pounds Sensibly using TOPS, a nonprofit weight-loss support organization, last year as one of 25 wellness activities offered to employees. McGinness, assistant director of special education, is also a volunteer TOPS leader with the school district. If employees participate in four wellness activities a year, the district will waive the health insurance premium.
That impressed Wansink.
The district's program "is one of the more innovative ones we have seen in the country by encouraging people to do the right thing," he said.
In addition, he said, "Wichita is one of my favorite cities in the Midwest."
Jennifer Sinclair, principal at Truesdell Middle School, read Wansink's book one weekend and was hooked.
"He suggests you change behaviors in your daily routine and you make a chart and give yourself check marks when you successfully alter that behavior," Sinclair said. "One behavior I vowed to change was that I could not eat anything that I didn't pack and bring from home. It was hard because we have a mom that brings still-warm tamales in the mornings. Hello? I am a human being. But I've told myself, if I didn't pack it, I can't eat it.
"Now, I am not a patron saint of mindless eating, I am a work in progress. But when I saw the flier for this, I sent it to all my friends to go with me and make this part of our fitness pursuit."