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updated 1/14/2005 7:17:26 AM ET 2005-01-14T12:17:26

Americans have a love-hate relationship with buffets. At a restaurant or a party, we cheerfully anticipate the different foods available. Afterwards, we gripe about how much we ate and how many unhealthy choices there were. But it is possible to outwit the enticing spread of a buffet and be satisfied.

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The many choices that buffets pose is one reason they are a challenge to eating a reasonable amount. Studies show that people tend to take more food when more is present. Even when people think they will only “taste” everything, this nibbling tends to involve more food than their typical meal. Indeed, one study found that greater variety in almost every food category leads to increased calorie consumption. The only exception is vegetables. More variety of this food lowers calorie intake. Unfortunately, buffets often offer either few vegetables or selections high in fat.

The accessibility of buffets makes all the variety even harder to resist. Research shows that when food is within easy reach, people are much more likely to follow their innate biological impulse and grab it. The buffet environment often encourages this natural impulsiveness. People don’t want to hold up the line or look silly lingering over a food choice. They quickly take something that they might have skipped if ordering from a menu.

Too much food
The sheer amount of food is another reason buffets are problematic. Studies at Pennsylvania State University, New York University and Cornell University have all shown that people eat more when larger amounts are available. The size of buffet selections increases the size of portions people take and raises the amount they eat.

Even if people want to take portions appropriate to their needs, research shows that they have trouble visually measuring what they see. People have a particular difficulty judging the amount of foods that don’t hold a shape like noodles, rice and casseroles, which are common at buffets. It is probably true that the abundance of food available to the average American — not just at buffets — contributes to the current epidemic of obesity.

A final drawback to buffets is that many Americans have been taught from a young age to clean their plates. We tend to keep on eating even when our bodies say we’ve had enough. This unhealthy behavior is reinforced by a desire to get our money’s worth by overeating at a restaurant. At a social gathering, many people oblige themselves to eat out of a misplaced sense of politeness. We should always remember that a variety of choices is made for our pleasure of choosing what we want. A buffet shouldn’t be considered a requirement to gorge ourselves.

Maximize the benefits
To truly enjoy a buffet and feel good about yourself later, look over the selections first. Decide which options appeal to you the most, reminding yourself that there will be time to take more. To maximize the healthfulness and satisfying power of your meal, balance one-third or less of your plate with some source of protein, like meat, fish, poultry, cheese, beans, eggs, or tofu, with two-thirds or more vegetables, fruits and grains. If you want a higher-fat food, accompany it with several lower-fat choices.

Although a buffet can be distracting, try to follow your body’s hunger signals as a guide for how much to eat. When you are done, remove any plate or bowl with food in front of you. At a party, your good intentions to eat only what you need will be strengthened the farther away you stand from the buffet.

Buffets can be healthful and enjoyable. Just remember that you are in control, not the buffet

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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