Why do so many people overeat? All kinds of explanations have been proposed, including boredom, lack of willpower, hormones and genetics. But often overlooked is the food environment—from relentless food ads to 24/7 food availability and super-sized portions—which entices us to overfill our plates and eat even if we are not hungry.
One of the leading researchers studying hidden eating traps in the environment is Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. In his classic "bottomless bowl" study, for instance, people ate 73 percent more soup when they ate from a bowl that automatically refilled without their knowledge. But they didn’t realize they ate more, nor did they report feeling fuller, which shows that people tend to rely more on external visual cues (we eat until our plate is empty) instead of internal cues (hunger).
In another Wansink study, people took 53 percent more food and ate an extra 142 calories, on average, when offered snacks from large serving bowls at a buffet than they did when offered snacks from small bowls. It concluded that “larger bowls, like larger packages or portions, may suggest that a proportionately larger amount is appropriate to consume.” Yet another study found that people poured about 37 percent more liquid into short, wide glasses than tall, narrow glasses of the same total volume.
As such studies show, small environmental factors can have a big influence on food consumption—and all it takes is a mere 50 extra calories a day to gain about five pounds a year. Small changes, such as using smaller plates and bowls and tall, narrow glasses, could have big effects on your waistline. Dr. Wansink has found that simply using salad plates instead of dinner plates, keeping unhealthy foods out of sight and not eating in front of the TV helps people lose weight. Here are some other things to be aware of, based on more recent findings.
- Colors matter: In a study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, people at a buffet were randomly given large red or white plates and then told to serve themselves pasta with either red marinara or white Alfredo sauce. Those who used red plates for red pasta or white plates for white pasta took about 22 percent more than those who used plates of contrasting color.
- Watch out for social influences. Several studies have shown that people tend to eat more when other people do. And those who are people-pleasers may be especially vulnerable to social influences, suggests a study from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Those who scored higher on a questionnaire that assessed people-pleasing characteristics took more M&Ms when they were handed a bowl by someone who had just taken a handful of the candy. “People-pleasers will often eat more in an attempt to make other people feel comfortable,” says lead researcher Julie Exline, Ph.D. To counter that, “try to find polite ways to decline while still being honest, friendly and gracious.”
- Be aware of the effects of tantalizing food images. Just viewing pictures of food boosted blood levels of ghrelin, a hormone associated with increased hunger and food intake, in a small study in Obesity. And in a large study in Appetite, dieters, in particular, snacked on more candy while watching a food-related TV show.
Overriding food triggers
The best way to override environmental food triggers is to practice intuitive eating. In this nondieting approach to weight control, you don’t count calories, measure food or even restrict foods, but instead use internal hunger cues to guide you about when and how much to eat. That way, even if you are presented with large plates or short, wide glasses or are inundated with tempting food ads, you’ll be less likely to overeat.
The related concept of “mindful eating” draws on traditional mindfulness meditation techniques and involves increasing awareness and decreasing distraction—in this case, paying attention to what you eat, savoring each bite, acknowledging what you like and don’t like and choosing foods that please and nourish you. This approach also helps you identify any emotional triggers that may be making you overeat, such as eating when you are stressed, depressed, upset, angry, lonely, even happy and excited. Research suggests that the more intuitive or mindful you are, the less likely you are to respond to external cues and overeat.
Bottom line: You may not have control over everything in your food environment—notably how food is advertised and is available practically everywhere—but simply being aware of hidden food triggers and being mindful of what you eat may be enough to keep you from overeating. A good resource to help you break a mindless eating habit is mindlesseating.org.