Our eating habits and food choices are shaped by far more than just hunger, which is why for most of us, choosing a salad over a slice of pizza requires some serious willpower.
Over the past decade, researchers from the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab have made some fascinating discoveries about how our environment and perceptions of food affect not only what but also how much we eat. So here are six ways you can use their research to trick yourself into making healthier food choices every time.
- Use smaller plates
The size of plate you use directly impacts how much you end up eating, because a bigger plate makes a regular serving of food seem smaller.
A study that took place at a health and fitness camp found that people who were given larger bowls ate 16% more cereal than those with smaller bowls. And even though they had eaten more, they estimated that they had eaten less compared to the small bowl group.
So not only can bigger plates cause you to overeat, they may even fool you into thinking you’ve been quite modest. With this in mind, opting for smaller plates whenever possible could help you to eat less but still feel full and satisfied.
- Start each meal with something healthy
Since visual cues are so powerful, the order in which you serve yourself can impact your whole meal. One experiment that studied two groups of people as they enjoyed a free buffet found that when healthier items like fruit were arranged at the beginning of the buffet rather than at the end, people served themselves more of those foods.
So rather than denying yourself every ‘unhealthy’ food, which can cause cravings and lead to binge eating, you can positivity influence your choices by starting each meal with a healthier item like a fresh salad or other vegetable dish.
- Turn off the TV while eating
Numerous studies show an association between watching TV and consuming more food, and it makes sense; watching TV is distracting, so when you eat while watching your favourite show, you don’t pay much attention to what or how much you’re eating.
Surprisingly, though, certain types of television are worse to watch while eating than others. One study found that participants who watched a suspenseful movie ate 98% more than those who watched a talk show, while another showed that moviegoers ate an average of 55% more popcorn when they watched a sad movie than when they watched an upbeat comedy.
Switching the TV off during mealtimes is best, but if you must watch something, save the tearjerkers and action thrillers for after your meal. Also, if you enjoy snacking while watching TV, make a point of putting out only as much food as you plan to eat.
- Stay away from low-fat foods
It may sound crazy, but we’re more likely to gain weight when our diet is composed primarily of low-fat foods. Why? Research shows that when we eat foods that are labelled as low-fat, we mistakenly assume that because we’re consuming less fat; we can afford to eat more.
So instead of maintaining sensible portions and simply switching out ordinary products for their low-fat counterparts, we actually end up increasing our calorie intake. With this in mind, sticking to full-fat products can prompt you to monitor your food intake more closely and avoid the trap of overeating.
- Never skip meals
When you skip meals, you’re far more likely to end up bingeing on starchy, high calorie foods once you finally do eat, and food shopping on an empty stomach could even ruin your diet for the whole week, with research showing that short-term food deprivation can cause you to buy nearly 45% more high calorie foods.
To avoid this, try not to go for more than 3-4 hours without eating at least a small snack, and make sure you’ve had a good meal before you step foot in the grocery store.
- Dim the lights and play some music
The atmosphere in which you eat your meals can also affect how much you end up eating. In one experiment, a section of a fast food restaurant was transformed with soft lighting and jazz music.
Although participants all ate the same type of food, those who had eaten their meal in the revamped section ate less. They also spent more time eating and rated the food as more enjoyable than those who had eaten in the regular fast food environment.
Since watching TV while eating isn’t the best idea anyway, have your meals at the table with pleasant lighting, music and conversation whenever you can – you’ll not only be less likely to overindulge, but will also enjoy your food more.
Marianne Stenger is a writer with Open Colleges. She covers career development, workplace productivity and self-improvement. You can connect with her on Twitter and Google+, or find her latest articles here.