Put the cookie down! 6 tips to curb overeating during the holidays

Special to The Globe and Mail

(Thinkstock/Stock photo)

Overeating is easy to do, especially this time of year when holiday treats are plentiful and only an arm’s length away.

But let’s face it. December’s food festivities are only a snapshot in the big picture. When it comes to calorie – and weight – control, it’s what you do the rest of the year that matters most.

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It takes more than nutrition know-how and sheer will power to prevent overeating year round. According to researchers from the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., you need to also be aware of overeating triggers that lurk under the radar.

The size of your dinnerware, the shape of your glass, the music you listen to – even the words on a food package – can unknowingly cause you to eat more than you intended, and more than you need.

The Food and Brand Lab, founded by Dr. Brian Wansink in 1997, studies how our immediate environment – home, restaurants, schools, packaging – influence how much and what we eat.

In a study published earlier this year, for example, the lab’s research revealed that giving a fast-food burger joint a “fine-dining makeover” caused patrons to eat less and feel more satisfied.

Compared to participants who ate in the unchanged part of the restaurant, those who ate their fast food to soft jazz music and under soft lighting rated their meal as more enjoyable and consumed fewer calories, despite the fact they spent more time eating.

The truth is, most of us don’t realize we eat as much as we do. Hidden environmental factors often cause us to underestimate the calories we consume.

If your 2013 resolution list includes eating healthfully – and moderately – research suggests you’d be wise to employ the following tactics to bypass unseen eating pressures. (Get a head start – practice these strategies now to help curb overeating during the holidays.)

Calm your dining ambience

Bright lights and noise create a hectic atmosphere that can cause you to eat quickly. The faster you eat, the more food you’ll consume before your brain tells you you’ve had enough and to stop eating.

Create a relaxing eating environment to help you eat less and feel satisfied. Dim the lights and listen to music with a slow beat. Research also shows that listening to soft music can help reduce anxiety, irritability, fatigue and depression, emotions that can trigger overeating.

Replace your dinnerware

According to Wansink’s research, larger plates make a serving of food appear smaller and trick us into eating more. Smaller plates, on the other hand, lead us to mistake a portion of food to be larger.

So serve your meals on a luncheon-sized plate that’s seven to nine inches in diameter. The plate will look full and you’ll end up eating less.

Use tall drinking glasses

Wansink’s research found that adults pour – and consume – almost 20 per cent more fruit juice when they use short, wide glasses instead of tall, narrow glasses, while thinking they drank less than they actually did.

We tend to perceive tall, skinny glasses as holding more liquid than short, stubby ones. Our eyes focus on the height of an object, not allowing us to correctly account for its width.

One study also found professionally trained bartenders poured 27 per cent more liquor into a wide tumbler than the same size highball glass.

Pour caloric beverages like juice, soft drinks or alcohol into tall, skinny glasses instead of wide tumblers. You’ll drink less, but think you drank more.

Be buffet savvy

Adjusting how you manage buffets can help you control your weight. Research shows that compared to overweight people, normal-weight diners are more likely to sit facing away the buffet table and take time to browse the selections before putting food on their plate.

If you eat at a Chinese restaurant, use chopsticks instead of a fork to slow your eating pace.

Avoid the “low-fat trap”

According to Wansink’s investigations, seeing the words “low fat” on a snack food package can encourage you to eat 50 per cent more than you would have had you chosen the regular version.

We tend to believe that foods labelled low fat have fewer calories (which often isn’t the case) and perceive an appropriate serving size to be 25 per cent larger.

Don’t eat out of the package. Measure out a single serving of your snack (check the nutrition label) on a small plate or bowl. Doing so will make you aware of how much you are eating.

If you still feel tempted to overeat, buy the regular or full-fat version.

Keep treats hidden

If food is in plain sight and it’s nearby, we tend to nosh. When Wansink gave office workers a bowl of chocolate “kisses,” he found they ate nine a day if the bowl was on their desk, and six if it was put in a desk drawer. If the bowl was placed two metres away and people had to walk to get one, the number dropped to four a day.

Keep sugary, high-fat treats hidden or at a distance that’s inconvenient. Better yet, replace the candy bowl or cookie jar with a bowl of fruit and keep it front and centre.

Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is the national director of nutrition at BodyScience Medical. She can be seen every Thursday at noon on CTV News Channel’s Direct. www.lesliebeck.com

Follow on Twitter: @lesliebeckrd