By Tula Karras
Talk about a disappearing act: You sit down to dinner with friends and an hour later, you've polished off your appetizer, entrée and dessert. Gulp.
It's all too easy to lose track of how much you're eating, whether you're sharing a meal with others or snacking solo. "There are a number of dietary danger zones that can trip a person up in ways they're not aware of," says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author of Mindless Eating (Bantam, 2006), who has appeared on 20/20 and conducted dozens of studies on environmental cues that unconsciously lead us eat more than we intend to.
The good news is, if you know what to watch out for, you can employ easy tricks that will help you stop before you've overdone it. Wansink reveals the top mindless-eating traps and offers some advice on how to outsmart them.
The trap: The company
Studies show you'll likely eat more when breaking bread with others than when eating by yourself. That's partly because you mimic your dining companions' eating habits—if someone else has seconds, you tend to follow suit. "And if you're a fast eater, you'll probably continue eating until the last person at the table is done," says Wansink, so you'll end up packing away more calories than anyone else there.
Eat-smart strategy: If you've already had your share, and start to reach for more, ask yourself: Am I really hungry, or is cousin Al's eating-marathon influencing me? If it's too hard to sit and chat without ingesting anything, order a low-calorie drink (like herbal tea or sparkling water) to sip while others are finishing up.
The trap: The tunes
You'd never guess it, but your ears can play tricks on your stomach. "Fast music speeds up the pace of your eating, so you eat about 8 percent more than you would without up-tempo music," Wansink explains. Even slow music affects how much you eat: One study found that people sat at the table for 22 minutes longer (and, of course, continued eating) when slow music was playing compared to no music at all.
Eat-smart strategy: At home, try eating without background tunes, or play them at a very low volume. If you're out to eat and don’t have control of the stereo, ask to have your plate removed when you're feeling full (or when you hit a 5 or 6 on the hunger scale), or you'll continue picking at it.
The trap: The dishes
The larger the plate, the more you'll eat—period. "We found that people who ate off of a 12-inch plate consumed 28 percent more food over the course of the meal than those with a 10-inch plate," says Wansink. The kicker? Those who ate less food were just as full and satisfied as those who ate off the 12-inch plate. The fact is, we're trained to clean our plates, no matter what the size, and to "feel full" when we've accomplished that.
Eat smart-strategy: Down-size your dishes. Eating off of smaller-sized plates and bowls allows you to eat a satisfying meal without overdoing it. Same goes for glasses and dessert plates. And don't eat straight out of the bag—pour some into a bowl and stash the big bag back in the cupboard.
The trap: The location of your food
Having food right in front of you will cause you to eat more of it. "We did an experiment with secretaries where we set out bowls of Hershey's Kisses, placing them right at their desk and then six feet away," Wansink says. Putting the candies just mere feet from the desk reduced the number they ate from 9 to 4 a day—a difference of 125 calories. Over the course of a year, that's 12 pounds! It wasn't simply that walking over to the bowl was too tiresome, but it gave the women a chance to pause and ask themselves, "Do I really want another piece?"
Eat-smart strategy: At work, keep treats in a drawer or cabinet that's far from your chair or desk—and place healthy, low-cal snacks like fruit within arm's length so you'll reach for them first. At home, set veggie dishes front and center on the table—so you're more likely to fill up on the healthy food—and keep the high-cal side dishes and entrées on the stove or kitchen counter, so they're out of sight and require a trip from the table for seconds. "Just moving a bowl off the table decreases the amount of it you'll eat by 30 percent," Wansink adds.
You don't have to maintain this super-alert state all the time, though. "The point is to become aware of bad habits, change them, and then relax and enjoy eating knowing you have systems in place that won't let you overdo it," says Wansink. Now that's a goal worth eating toward.