What I’ve learned in 20 years of food research is that no matter how tuned in we think we think we are to our eating habits, we are a nation of mindless eaters.
Most people think they make about 15 eating decisions a day, but our recent studies show they make well over 200. We just don’t realize this, and that’s what leads to mindless mistakes.
The problem gets kicked into overdrive during the three diet danger months of the party-happy holidays. It starts with Halloween and ends with the final buzzer of the Super Bowl.
During this time we don’t overeat because we are hungry or because the food tastes that good. As I point out in my book "Mindless Eating — Why we eat more than we think," we overeat because of the cues around us. We overeat because of family and friends, packages and plates, shapes and smells, distractions and distances, cupboards and containers. This list is almost as endless as it is invisible.
Take, for instance, the problem of ice cream bowls.
If you spoon 2 ounces of ice cream onto a small bowl, it will look like a lot more than if you had spooned it into a large bowl. Even if you intended to carefully follow your diet, the larger bowl would likely influence you to serve more. This tricks even the pros.
We put this to the test by inviting 63 distinguished nutritional science professors at a leading university to an ice cream social to celebrate the end of the year and the success of a colleague. When our guests arrived, we gave them either medium-size 17-ounce bowls or large-size 34-ounce bowls. Even thought these people think, sleep, lecture and study nutrition, they still served themselves and ate 31 percent more ice cream (106 more calories) if they had been given a big bowl.
Just over 100 calories may not sound like much but if you did this everyday for the three holiday months, you would have gained over 5 pounds.
Consider Kathleen, a woman in one of our studies.She’s almost at the top of her profession and she’s barely in her 40s. That’s the good news. The bad news is that her great job is a holiday diet killer: it requires her to entertain and to be entertained at receptions, parties and buffets four to five nights a week over the holiday season. She compensates for being away from home by eating a little more than she should. But “a little more” four or five days a week has added up to 16 pounds in three years.
Part of what leads Kathleen to eat so much is the cues around her — the plate size, the convenience, the variety, the distractions, and the length of time these parties drag on.
But a few small painless changes could help her — and most of you — turn the situation around. Adopt three or so of the following strategies for avoiding the trap of mindless eating this holiday season.
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• Use the appetizer plate for dinner.
• Put only two items on your plate during any given trip to the table. Return as many times as you like, but only take two items each time.
• Use the volume approach to make yourself feel full. Chow down on the big healthy stuff (like broccoli and carrots) and then see if you have room for the rest.
• When think you will be distracted by an important (or fun) conversation, set the food down and give it your full attention. Remember, the more you're distracted by people or, say, the Superbowl, the more you will tend to eat unknowingly.
•And if you are really worried about overeating at a cocktail party or buffet-style meal, arrive late or leave early. If you show up late, most of the good stuff will be gone. Leave early and you will make it easier to avoid a second (or third) helping of dessert.
These strategies should help you avoid weight gain during the next few months. They might even bring extra enjoyment to the holidays by helping you focus more on friends, family and fun — and less on calories.
Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of "Mindless Eating— Why We Eat More Than We Think," is director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab.
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