Many researchers believe that obesity requires a broad, societal solution—one that may include greater regulation or taxation of the food industry, school- and community-based nutrition education, and city planning that makes it more attractive to walk or ride a bike than drive. That doesn't mean, however, that individuals are powerless in the face of our current environment, which in large part encourages us to eat more and exercise less. You can't single-handedly remove the fast-food billboards that tempt you on your way to work, but you can control at least some of the thousands of cues that bombard you every day. The problem, says Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating, is that those cues often fly beneath your consciousness; you don't even realize you are eating more than you intended. "People believe they are way too smart to be tricked by their environment," he says. His research, however, shows they are wrong. Here are his top tips for preventing mindless eating.
1. Use a smaller plate—but not too small. You may have already heard of tricking yourself into smaller portions by swapping an LP-size plate for one closer to the size of a Frisbee. Great idea, but don't go much below 9½ inches, says Wansink. His research has shown that when you downsize so much that it's obvious to your eye, you start to compensate—go back for seconds, say, or pile the mashed potatoes higher. The goal instead is to make the change imperceptible. (For more on using plate size and other portion control tricks to manage your eating, look at the website of the Small Plate Movement, a group with which Wansink is involved.)
2. Don't eat family style. Having the ability to reload your plate from a big serving platter is a quick ticket to eating more than you realize, says Wansink. He and his colleagues have videotaped people eating family style and then asked them how many servings they thought they consumed. Invariably, they reported eating one or two. "Then we play back the tape, and they've had four," he says. Instead, fill your plate in the kitchen and eat at the table.
3. Use the rule of two at restaurants. A lot of people stumble when they go out to eat; they perceive it as a special occasion, and no one likes to feel pressure to be conscious of every bite. Instead, make trade-offs, Wansink advises. Order what you want as an entree, and then allow yourself two extras, such as an alcoholic drink and dessert, or an appetizer and bread, but no more.
4. Put a barrier between you and your snacks. Rather than saying, "I must never snack," allow yourself to do it, but make it harder. The barrier can be geographical—rather than having a dish of candy on your desk, put it 6 feet away. Or it can be behavioral—say, allowing yourself an indulgent snack only after you eat a piece of fruit. Even if it's just half a grape, Wansink says; the point is to put some other act between you and your snack of choice.
These ideas are only a few of the ways you can curb mindless eating. The trick is to find tactics that work for you. For more ideas, take the Mindless Eating Challenge. Your answers to the survey will give you some suggested changes that are appropriate to your style of eating.