The following article was adapted from the May 2011 edition of Nutrition Action Healthletter, a monthly publication from the The Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Nutrition Action Healthletter recently interviewed Cornell University professor, Brian Wansink, on why we overeat. What he shared lends credence to the cliché that our eyes are bigger than our stomach. We hear much chatter these days about being mindful – mindful with regard to our actions, words, thoughts, and what we eat. We all know that mindless eating can lead to overeating. Conversely, we might surmise that mindful eating counteracts mindless eating and thus overeating. Not so, according to Wansink. Being mindful about what we eat is not the solution. He explains that external cues affect what we eat. The key to not overeating is understanding how these external cues affect us and creating an environment to help us manage them. Read on to see how this can work!

We are often tempted to eat certain foods (and more of them) when we’re tired, bored, feeling down, etc. This is external cue number one: our emotions. We’re also affected by serving size – the more you serve, the more we eat. Another very interesting external cue that affects how much we eat is the name given to food items. Wansink reported that sales for a cafeteria increased 27% when descriptive names were added to menu items. Chocolate cake became Belgian Black Forest Cake and Italian Pasta became Succulent Tuscany Pasta – very clever!

Our eating habits are further influenced by the location of the food, who we dine with, and the size of the person next to us in a serving line. We tend to eat more if the serving dish is placed on the dinner table rather than in the kitchen. We eat more when we dine with fast eaters. If we’re standing in a buffet line behind a larger person, we tend to accumulate more food on our plate reasoning that, “I’m not that heavy, so I can afford to take a lot of food.”

Wansink also describes how the “health halo” affects overeating. If we perceive a restaurant (Subway vs McDonald’s, for example) to be healthier, we tend to underestimate the number of calories in a meal from the “healthier” restaurant. When people thought they were eating a sandwich from Good Karma Healthy Foods rather than one from Jim’s Hearty Sandwich Shop, they tended to add chips, a full-calorie soda and a cookie to their meal, illustrating that names matter! Low fat foods also fall under the health halo. When people were given a food they thought was low-fat, they consumed 21-46 percent more calories. People feel they deserve more because they are eating low-fat foods.

Exercise can indirectly and directly affect what we eat and how much. When reasonably active exercisers were shown exercise advertisements prior to a meal, they ate less. The ads apparently reminded the exercisers how much work they would have to do to burn a certain number of calories. A group of walkers who were reminded to keep their pace up throughout a one mile jaunt ended up consuming more calories at dinner than a second group who walked the same route and distance at the same pace, but who were preoccupied with the scenery rather than the pace. Perception matters!

Just being mindful that our eating habits are affected by external cues is not enough to prevent overeating. Will-power is not going to help either. According to Wansink, even well-informed and educated folks are not immune to the effects of external cues. As mentioned earlier, the key to managing these cues is how we set up our environment. Wansink suggests that we can solve the problem by doing the opposite. Here are some examples:

  • If we eat more because we “see” more, we need to “see” less food
    • Use smaller dishes
    • Keep the food off the dinner table and on the counter or stove
    • Purchase 100-calorie packs
    • Transfer bulk items (snacks for example) to serving size containers
    • Keep healthy food easily accessible – healthy snacks on the kitchen counter
    • If we see the healthier food first, we’re more likely to choose it
      • Place the healthier foods at the front of the pantry shelf or fridge
      • Serve fruits and vegetables in appealing (colorful, decorative) dishes

Most importantly, don’t depend solely on your self control – set your environment up for success!

Copyright 2011 Fitness Consultants Inc. All rights reserved.