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The first step in controlling your eating is acknowledging that you can’t.
We’ve all heard this one: “I’m on the see food diet. When I see food, I eat it.”
It’s a mildly amusing joke the first time you hear it, but what’s not funny is the fact that, in a sense, all of us are on the see food diet, and it’s one of the reasons weight management is so difficult for many of us.
Research has consistently shown that people are unable to resist temptations and inducements to eat. When presented with delectable foods at times when we are not hungry, we usually eat them. When served larger portions than we need to satisfy our appetite, we usually clear our plate anyway. And commercial advertising that tries to make us crave junk food usually succeeds.
For example, the results of a new Cornell University study suggest that people eat more when they place serving dishes on the same table they eat from. In the study, lead researcher Brian Wansink and colleagues had subjects eat the same foods in two different circumstances. In one circumstance they served themselves from dishes that sat in front of them on a table and then ate at that same table. In a second circumstance they served themselves at a counter and then took their plates to a table where they ate without the temptation of additional food in front of them. In both circumstances the subjects were instructed to eat as much or as little as they liked. Guess what? Women ate 20 percent less and men 29 percent less when they ate without serving dishes in front of them.
When we see food, we eat it.
Wansink’s “serve here, eat there” study is only the latest in a long line of studies through which he has shown that we are puppets and environmental food cues are the puppeteers. My favorite is his famous self-refilling soup bowls study. Fifty-four subjects were invited to enjoy a bowl of soup, eating as much or as little as they liked. Half of the bowls were outfitted with a device that slowly and imperceptibly refilled them with soup as the subjects ate. On average, the subjects eating from the self-refilling bowls ate 73 percent more soup than the others without realizing it and without feeling any more full afterward.
So, you’re a puppet. I’m a puppet. We’re all puppets. What can we do about it? A lot, actually. There are all kinds of simple ways to avoid temptations to overeat or eat the wrongs things. Here’s a few suggestions.
Use small plates and bowls
Put away the vast serving platters you use as dinner plates (I’m exaggerating) and eat your pierogies off an appetizer plate instead. Stop eating your Cheerios out of those huge mixing bowls (I’m still exaggerating) and start eating them out of a small salad bowl.
The idea here is not to go hungry but to eat from the small dishes that will fit enough food to satisfy your appetite, as research shows that when we use larger dishes we automatically eat more.
Clean out your cupboards
My sister in law is a nutritionist, and one of the first things she does with new clients is visit their homes and empty their cupboards and refrigerators of all the junk. When both junk and healthy food are available in your kitchen you will eat the junk first. I cured my potato chips-eating habit by begging my wife to stop bringing bags of potato chips home from the store. Try it!
Order small portions
Many restaurants these days serve huge portions. Remember, you’re a puppet. If you are served more than you need at a restaurant, you will eat it. Ask about portion sizes before ordering and request half portions when appropriate to avoid overeating.
Keep fruit visible
Another study by Brian Wansink found that subjects ate more fruit when it was kept in a highly visible place on the kitchen table. Do that.
Travel with healthy snacks
You never know when you’re going to be out and about, taking care of business, and then suddenly and unexpectedly discover that you’re ravenous just as you’re passing by a Burger King. To avoid becoming hungry when the nearest foods are cheeseburgers and fries, get in the habit of having healthy snacks (dried fruit, real-food snack bars, homemade beef jerky) handy wherever you go. Stash them in your car, at your office, and in your airplane carry-on bag.