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 though 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 every day for the three holiday months, you would have gained more than five 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. Here are five ideas that are related to studies we've done in my lab and written about in “Mindless Eating”:
Wear your best belt
It’s a lot easier to stop eating when you know you’re full. One great clue is when your clothes and belt start telling you. It sounds obvious, but stopping when you're full is probably one of the harder things to do at the Thanksgiving table when everyone else is helping themselves to seconds. It will be easier to stop if you slow down, drink water, wear snug pants and push away from the table when you're done.
Save your calories for dinner
If you want to be a great guest and enjoy the meal the most, skip the hors d'oeuvres. A great basic rule of thumb is don’t eat anything that doesn't require a knife and fork.
Focus on the special stuff
Don't blow your calorie count on large portions of food you can eat every day. Limit the variety so you have only two items on your plate at any one time, as it stimulates the appetite. Only take two items at a time. Don't put 20 different items on your plate at once.
Small seconds are better than big firsts
Some people show their love through food. Our research on memory shows that your Aunt Grace won’t remember how much you take, but she will remember if you liked it enough to take seconds. Especially if you announce it. Take two small helpings of key foods rather than one medium/large portion.
Forget the post-dinner nibbles
We won’t starve if we skip the late-night turkey sandwich. Quarter up an apple. This is a great time to focus on the family and not on the food.
Readers, Web visitors and people in our seminars have all shown that these strategies (and many more like them in “Mindless Eating”) have helped them avoid weight gain during these next three diet-dangerous months. They might even bring extra enjoyment to the holidays by helping you focus more on friends, family and fun — and less on calories.