We've all been there: What started as an innocent "just a bite" decision has ended in a kitchen crime scene of crumbs, empty containers, and a sink full of licked-clean plates. You weren't particularly stressed or tired. You weren't even that hungry. So what happened?
"Not all overeating triggers are 'emotional,' and they're not always obvious,'" explains Nina Savelle-Rocklin, PsyD, a psychotherapist who specializes in food and body image issues. "Sometimes subtle external cues can cause us to eat more than we realize."
It's the decisions we're not aware of that create the biggest overeating problems, says Brian Wansink, MD, consumer behavior psychologist of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab.
"The average person believes they make between 25 to 30 dietary decisions a day, but that number is closer to 200," Dr. Wansink says. "Because we don't consider most of our food decisions to be actual decisions, we don't pay attention, and that can result in eating more than we intend."
Tuning in to these less obvious food decisions is the first step to avoiding overeating. Here are three of the most surprising reasons we overeat, and the practical tips you need to avoid packing on the calories — and the pounds.
Fooled by Food Labels
Forget what's inside the food package; research suggests overindulgence often comes down to the label itself.
In a July 2013 study, researchers found people estimated snacks labeled "organic" to be significantly lower in calories, more nutritious, and even tastier than when reviewing the exact same snacks without the "organic" label.
"People eat significantly more calories from foods with health halos than when they eat the regular versions, even if they don't enjoy them as much," Wansink says.
One study from Wansink's lab showed putting a "low-fat" label on snack foods encouraged people to eat 50 percent more than those who saw packages without the low-fat claim. The tendency to overestimate the healthfulness of food and underestimate its caloric value based on one narrow attribute — a food label, for instance — is what researchers call the health halo effect. And dieters are particularly susceptible.
"Calorie counters want to believe they can eat something they really want because it has fewer calories, even if they know that not to be the case in the back of their minds," Wansink says. "Many dieters subconsciously reward themselves for making a 'good' decision with more food. Once they've made a good decision, dieters feel they have satisfied their dietary goals and can eat whatever they want. The food basically has no calories."
So what's a dieter to do? Here are a few tips:
- Consider buying regular versions of snack foods instead of low-fat, diet-friendly ones.
- Understand what health claims like "low-fat," "organic," "natural," etc. really mean.
- Measure single servings into a bowl rather than mindlessly munching straight from the bag, jar, or bottle.
The Thanksgiving Dilemma
Variety is the spice of life, but not when it comes to losing weight. In an April 2015 study, researchers found people who ate multiple pizza brands were more likely to overeat than shoppers who stuck to one brand.
Previous research on the effect of variability on consumption showed similar findings. People served a varied four-course meal consumed 44 percent more food and 60 percent more calories than diners presented with just one food for each course.
"We crave variety, but it can also be confusing," Wansink explains. "The more options we're confronted with, the more we consume without realizing it."
It's a phenomenon researchers refer to as "sensory-specific satiety." Simply put, eating the same food over and over — whether that's a flavor, texture, brand, or even color — becomes less palatable sooner than when we introduce variety.
"Think about eating a bag of plain popcorn, versus, say, Thanksgiving dinner," Wansink says. "It's almost like the different foods you get give your tastebuds a break, and you can continue to eat, even if you're full."
Don't throw out your leftovers just yet, though.
"A varied diet is important, but when it comes to mealtime options, less is more," Wansink says.
Here are couple tips to make a varied diet work for you:
- Limit the amount and number of fattening foods presented at a meal, and increase the volume and variety of healthy options.
- Leave serving dishes in the kitchen. Moving dishes just six feet away from the table can curb the compulsion to grab more food when we're not hungry.
Large Plate Mistake
Yes, overeating can come down to the size of your tableware. In a series of December 2013 studies, researchers found that diners at buffets who used larger plates served themselves 52 percent more than those who used smaller plates. And for those of you (aptly) thinking that doesn't mean the larger-plate participants ate more food than the smaller-plate participants, here's a sobering factoid for you: Researchers at Cornell University found people consistently eat about 92 percent of the food on their plates.
"We're all members of the Clean Plate Club. If it goes on your plate, it goes in your tummy, regardless of how full you are," Wansink says.
It makes sense that downsizing serveware would be an easy way to do damage control. In a September 2015 review of more than 60 studies and 6,700 participants, University of Cambridge researchers found that reducing portion, package, and tableware sizes could result in 22 to 29 percent calorie savings — that's an average of 537 calories each day!
Already swapped your 12-inch dinner plates for 10-inch ones? Here are a few more tips to avoid overeating:
- Choose smaller cutlery or eat with chopsticks. (Or try eating with your non-dominant hand!)
- Repackage bigger boxes of snack foods into smaller bags or containers.
- Put a mirror in your dining room.
- Serve yourself less food than you think you want. "In most cases, people can eat 20 percent less without even noticing it," Wansink says.
- Ditch serving tongs, which lead to over-serving, and stick to small serving spoons instead.
It's easy to overindulge, but with these simple tips, you'll be on the path to healthier eating choices in no time.