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Have you ever kept track of your nibbling?

I didn’t think so.

Oh, it’s only a coffee (with cream and sugar), a few M&M’s from the candy bowl at work, the last few bites of food from my 3-year-old’s plate. A little here and there and next thing you know you have eaten as many calories as in a whole extra meal! Maybe you are a multitasker – you eat and watch TV, check your email, drive to work (did you know that watching television while eating leads to people eating 40 percent more food?) 

Cornell professor Brian Wansink’s research has uncovered the psychological cues that lead people to overeat. The human stomach isn’t sensitive enough to notice small caloric differences, and it often doesn’t register how much has been eaten until 20 minutes or more after the food has been swallowed. People rely on their eyes, ears and noses to tell them when to stop eating. It turns out that our senses are not reliable and as a result, we overeat.

Have you ever gone to your local self serve yogurt place for a little dessert after dinner and noticed their huge containers? By the time you add the yogurt and toppings and reach the register, the once huge container is now filled to the brim without much thought. “If we simply give people a larger plate size, in some cases, they’ll end up eating 25%-50% more food just because the dish they’re eating from is bigger,” says Wansink. “Whether it’s the time of day, who we are with, the lighting, the size of dish, the variety of food – all of these things end up influencing us as we make food choices.”

“If you look at all the factors that influence your food choices over the course of a day, if you eat 20% more calories than you need because of those factors, then at the end of the year, that’s about 40 pounds of extra weight,” says Wansink. “So it makes a huge difference at the end of the year, and that’s what we call the ‘mindless margin’ – we lose and gain weight by a few calories a day.”

Adjust your environment and set yourself up to eat less:

SEE WHAT YOU EAT:  Visual cues are critical to controlling how much we eat, according to Wansink. Students participating in an all-you-can-eat chicken wing buffet ate continually if their tables were continually cleared, because they couldn’t see how many they’d already consumed. Here’s a handy tip for your next buffet: people who put everything on their plate before they sit down to eat – including dessert – eat about 14% less than people who take smaller amounts and go back for seconds or thirds. He also advises people not to eat snacks out of the box; put it into a separate dish and leave the box in the kitchen. You will eat less if you can see how much you’ve already eaten.

SIZE (AND SHAPE) MATTERS: Wansink and his colleagues conducted two studies of 167 people demonstrating that both children and adults pour and consume more juice when given a short, wide glass compared to those given a tall, narrow glass – although they believed the opposite to be true. Those with the short wide glasses poured 76% more juice than those with the tall slender glasses. The bias is caused by a visual illusion known as the vertical-horizontal illusion: we tend to focus on heights instead of widths, so we are more likely to over-pour into wide glasses while thinking we poured very little because of the shorter height. The same illusion can happen with a plate. Larger plates can make a serving of food appear smaller, and smaller plates can lead us to misjudge that very same quantity of food as being significantly larger. For example, in a study conducted at a health and fitness camp, campers who were given larger bowls served and consumed 16% more cereal than those given smaller bowls.

Being more aware of your environment and taking action to change it can help keep you on the road to weight loss success.

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