Do you know why you overeat?
Overeating is a common and complex behavior in this culture.
A Pew survey finds that about six-in-ten Americans say they eat more than they should, either often (17%) or sometimes (42%). More particularly, a majority of Americans report that they eat more junk food than they should, either often (19%) or sometimes (36%).
More than 85% of people say that Americans are more overweight today than five years ago and two-thirds of the public call this a “major problem.”
While issues with eating are often driven by personal or familial dynamics, food expert, Brian Wansink, who conducted research with thousands of people over many years, found that when it comes to overeating, people actually share some common patterns.
A closer look at the research findings of factors causing overeating invites strategies for taking back control.
In A Pew Research telephone survey most people reported convenience as their reason for eating junk food. Consistent with this ,expert food researcher Brian Wansink and colleagues found that “The more hassle it is to eat,the less we eat.”
What is striking is how just a little inconvenience can reduce a lot of eating.
Make junk foods and the foods you tend to overeat “inconvenient.” Put the ice cream in the garage or basement freezer and the cookies and chips in bins in the back of the pantry. Put the foods you want to eat (cut up fruit, yogurt, and veggies) out or in the front. Stack the deck in your favor with what you keep in your office drawer or at the front of your refrigerator because when you are hungry and out of time – the most convenient is likely to be the choice.
Beyond convenience, studies show that visible foods trigger eating in a way that is difficult to resist. One study found that secretaries reached into a clear candy bowl 71% more times than a white colored one. Visibility makes us “too mindful” of food. Neurochemically, the anticipation of food trips secretions that add to our craving and our overeating.
Visual Cues as Guides
Whoever invented “The Clean Plate Club” should be shot. Historically many people will tell you that from an early age they were trained to use the plate as their norm for consumption, rather than their bodily sense of fullness. Most can’t shake it.
In one of his most noted studies, “Bottomless Bowls,” Brian Wansink demonstrates how people’s use of visual cues makes them unable to correctly detect how much they are eating. In two groups, one eating out of normal soup bowls and one eating out of soup bowls rigged up from the bottom to keep refilling, those with the re-filling bowls not only did not recognize their bowls were refilling – they reported eating a similar amount as those in the normal soup bowl group. They had actually consumed 73% more soup.
If you are stuck with the clean plate club – use a smaller plate and a smaller glass and that will be a safer guide. In this culture of super-size and “Big Gulp” it is easy to lose perspective as well as your body’s sense of overload. Fill all the food you plan to eat on one plate- let be your portion. If, as they suggest at a buffet, you keep taking a new plate( resist this) – there is no telling how much you will eat.
Anything that takes our focus off the food makes us more likely to overeat. People eat more in front of TV, while reading, sitting at their desks, and snacking in the movies because they are eating in a mindless way.
If eating while viewing is a treasured activity – plan for it. Plan what you will eat and dish out the portion. Remember- people with big ice cream bowls dished out 31% more ice cream!
Research has found that smoking, deciding to get the flu shot, and taking vitamins are all socially contagious behaviors. But our friends have even more influence on how much we eat and drink. They affect our consumption norms and expectations.
Professors Fowler and Christakis found that having a friend who is gaining weight makes you 57% more likely to do so yourself. They consider that consciously or unconsciously, people use what others are eating as a gage for themselves- be it the oversized fries or the chocolate dessert.
When you consider how easy it is to overeat without realizing what you are doing, slowing down or stopping can begin to feel overwhelming. Consider experimenting with taking back
control. Try one of these simple strategies. In the long run in many ways – “Less can be more.”
Photo by Micah Sittig, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.
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Last reviewed: 22 Dec 2011