Cornell University scientist Brian Wansink is the king of mindless eating. Not because he permanently has his hand in a box of Junior Mints, but because he has studied, psychoanalyzed, and otherwise tried to crack the code of why we eat so much. As I've written before, he focuses on all the cues in our environment that cause us to overeat without realizing it and gives advice on how to re-engineer our surroundings to encourage better habits.
During a conference call today sponsored by the International Food Information Council, Wansink explained why the holiday period is chock full of unhelpful eating cues. First, no matter the time of year, we are pretty useless at realizing how much the plates and other dishes from which we serve and eat influence how much we eat. Even after being warned that bigger bowls lead to overeating, we will still go ahead and pig out when we're given a big bowl. Moreover, letting our own appetites—the inner voice that says, "I'm not hungry anymore"—govern how much we eat is a losing battle. Most Americans simply don't think in those terms, he says. His research has shown that Parisians say they'll stop eating when they're no longer hungry or the food no longer tastes good; Chicagoans typically say they stop when the plate is empty, when everyone else is finished, or when the TV show is over(!). Finally, the calories in family recipes have been rising over the years, either because of more calorie-dense ingredients or because a casserole that was once intended to feed six or eight people is now consumed by a smaller family of three or four.
With those realities as a backdrop, you can imagine why the holidays are an absolute minefield for people trying to eat healthfully. You're surrounded by large platters and spacious plates just waiting to be filled, and the supply of food, usually made from traditional family recipes, never runs out.
To address the problems, use smaller plates and glasses. And don't have all the casserole and serving dishes on the dinner table—serve in the kitchen. That way, if you want another piece of pecan pie, at least you'll have to consciously get up and leave the room to fetch it. Also, be wary of falling into the trap of thinking you must eat a lot of food because you spent so much time cooking it. If you're a guest and think you might offend your host by keeping your serving sizes small, remember that Grandma will be pleased if you go back for seconds on her stuffing, even if the total amount you eat is far less than if you'd just had one heaping plate. Finally, about 10 percent of what we eat on a big holiday may come from pre-meal snacking, says Wansink. So stick to a small napkin for hors d'oeuvres and munchies, or just skip them entirely.
Check it out: Here are some more tips for a healthy Thanksgiving from That's Fit. And if calories are not a concern, here's a recipe for Gingery Pumpkin-Caramel Cheese Pie from the food blog Sticky, Gooey, Creamy, Chewy.
Clarified on 11/20/09: An earlier version of this story gave a misleading description of Brian Wansink's research. He found that study subjects overate when faced with big bowls even after being warned that that typically happens.