Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Stop Overeating: Why You Keep Shoveling Food In Your Mouth

Why do you keep shoveling food into your mouth -- and how do you stop? Modern food science explains why you just can't stop eating.

Hunger (appetite's physiological accelerator) and satiety (its brakes) are not the only reasons we start and stop eating. Researchers in the burgeoning field of food psychology have pinpointed a complex web of cues in the modern environment that all but overwhelm our once-adaptive systems: societal shifts in what constitutes appropriate portion sizes; the colors, embedded scents, and promotional language used in food packaging; the distracting effects of TV viewing during meals. These are just a few of the ubiquitous hidden persuaders that have converted eating from a natural human need into a national hobby.

By better understanding how food psychology influences us, we can avoid being blinded by a false glow and simultaneously add more luster to the foods our bodies really need.

The Atmospherics of Appetite

One of a food's most seductive additives is the setting in which it's served. In the case of fast-food emporia, profits depend on speed eating, whereas at high-end restaurants, the goal is to keep diners ensconced long enough to "up-sell" them drinks, appetizers, and desserts.

At home, turn off the TV and instead play your favorite slow music softly in the background. Use decent china, which sends the message "fine dining ahead!" as opposed to plastic plates and bowls, which proclaim "time to spork down some biomass."

If your goal is simply to eat less, try a more radical approach to ambience. Blue is the color most associated with mold and decay in food. Put a blue lightbulb in your refrigerator.

Tricks of the Eye

The larger the size of our dishes, the smaller we invariably consider the portion contained within, which just as invariably leads to overeating.

Research shows that dinnerware and serving sizes have continued to grow in tandem over the past 20 years. The standard dinner plate at a restaurant now averages 12 inches, up from 9 inches in the '70s. As a result, portion sizes are twice as large. At home, use smaller plates and bowls.

Eating by Association

We all proceed through life surrounded by environmental stimuli that condition our own patterns of eating behavior through association; for example the link between late-night TV and snacking.

Don't skip breakfast, and resolve to take a different route to and from work, one that steers you around fast-food temptations. At the same time, brown-bag a filling, healthy lunch to help you dodge the drive-thru.

Another tactic: Eliminate as many distractions as you can so you concentrate on your food. Chances are you'll eat less when you pay full attention to the ingestion process.

Engorged at the Smorgasbord

Variety in food is a surprisingly powerful force.

Try to limit or eliminate visits to smorgasbords, breakfast buffets, food courts, Korean delis, and similar settings that lay out gastronomical porn.

When you do find yourself at a food fest, be it a friend's gourmet dinner party or a business buffet, limit yourself to two items on your plate at a time. You can always go back for more.

The Language of Food Love

Specific forms of language are used frequently because of their ability to evoke our emotions and stoke our desires. For example:

Linking specific foods to the geographical regions famous for their production: Omaha steaks.

Nostalgic labels like Grandma's Old World manicotti trigger associations with family, tradition, and comfort.

A glowing description of great taste -- "tender, mesquite-smoked pork loin" -- can make our mouths water and stomachs growl as effectively as actual food.

The fourth technique is using brand labels. The original producers of these products have established emotional connections between their food and consumers.

You can fight back by simply remaining conscious of the hype that surrounds us. Sometimes reading the fine print can help, as well.

Strategic Eating Tip

1. Downsize your dishes: Unless you're eating off decades-old dishes, you probably have the newer, plus-size plates -- the kind that cause your eyes to override your appetite. Give them to Goodwill, and use 10 1/2-inch dinner plates, 8-inch salad plates, and 7-inch soup bowls instead.

2. Be small-minded about snacks: Outsmart your snack habit by sticking with the tiny 100-calorie packs now being used for everything from Doritos to Goldfish.

3. Raise your glasses: Since even experienced bartenders pour more into short, wide glasses than they do into tall, narrow ones, you'll need to be creative at home. Start by using highball glasses to replace the squat tumblers you use for scotch and brandy. Next, put away your pint beer glasses and buy the pilsner kind. Finally, switch balloon wine glasses with regular wine glasses.

4. Divide and dine: Restaurants use large plates. When your entree arrives, dive in and eat half, then wait at least 10 minutes before coming out for round 2. While you chat and sip water, your stomach will have a chance to digest and decide whether you've had enough -- no matter what the plate's saying.

Related Posts: