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Avoid Three Common Overeating Pitfalls

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Overeating isn't just a holiday season worry. Although there are an abundance of occasions for eating celebratory meals and treats from Thanksgiving through New Year's, many of us face the same dietary pitfalls all year long.

It's helpful to know that you can take charge of the social and environmental influences that may lead you to overeat. Here's how to avoid some common challenges:

• Pitfall #1: Recognize that eating with people you know—such as friends and family—can cause you to eat more. Eating while watching TV increases your eating almost as much. In both cases, it's the distraction (from conversation or watching a show) that promotes overeating.

o To overcome this effect, take smaller servings and eat slowly. Before taking seconds, give yourself the 20 minutes necessary for your brain to register that you feel full.
o People sometimes "match" the amount they eat to what they see their dining companion eating. That may explain why your chances of becoming obese increase if you have a friend, sibling or spouse who becomes obese. That doesn't mean you should stop eating with the people you love—instead, be aware of how much you put on your plate and don't eat more just to be sociable.

• Pitfall #2: Buffet-style restaurants, offering a wide selection of foods and often economical pricing, are appealing to many folks year-round. Yet it's the "grazing" quality of buffet service that makes overeating a real possibility. You can avoid the endless eating that buffet meals promote by taking a few cues from eating behavior research (yes, there is such a thing!):

o At a buffet, serve your food onto a small plate; don't use the larger ones.
o Walk along the entire buffet to see what's offered before taking any food.
o When dining at an Asian buffet, use chopsticks to eat instead of a fork.
o Put just two foods on your plate, and eat those before going back for more.
o If you're eating chicken wings, or another food with bones, leave the meat-stripped bones on your plate. Seeing the used bones cues you to how many you've eaten, and helps reduce further consumption.

• Pitfall #3: Watch out for fast-food and other restaurants that promote "healthy" meals. Those items—which might feature chicken, turkey or even salad—can have the same or more calories as foods you think of as "unhealthy," such as cheeseburgers. The calorie count depends upon the ingredients—breading, dressing, croutons, bacon or sauces can boost those numbers quickly.

What's more, even when the main dish is lower in calories, many people "balance" it by ordering high-calorie side dishes, drinks or desserts to go along with it. That pitfall results in overeating and consuming more calories than you intended.


Hetherington MM, Anderson AS, Norton, GNM, Newson L. "Situational Effects on Meal Intake: A Comparison of Eating Alone and Eating with Others." Physiology & Behavior. 2006;88(4-5):498-505.

Salvy SJ, Jarrin D, Paluch R, et al. "Effects of Social Influence on Eating in Couples, Friends and Strangers." Appetite. 2007;49(1):92-99.

Christakis NA, Fowler JH. "The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network Over 32 Years." New England Journal of Medicine. 2007;357(4):370-379.

Wansink B, Payne CR. "Eating Behavior and Obesity at Chinese Buffets." Obesity. 2008;16(8):1957-1960.

EatRight Ontario. "How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Mindless Eating." http://www.eatrightontario.ca. Accessed October 20, 2008.

Wansink B, Payne CR. "Counting Bones: Environmental Cues that Decrease Food Intake." Perceptual Motor Skills. 2007;104(1):273-276.

Chandon P, Wansink B. "The Biasing Health Halo of Fast-Food Restaurant Health Claims: Lower Calorie Estimates and Higher Side-Dish Consumption Intentions." Journal of Consumer Research. 2007;34(3):301-314.

Add a Comment2 Comments

I love the part about mindless eating. So often, when we are eating while doing something else (watching television, talking with friends, etc), we hardly even taste the food. It's almost something to do without our mouths and our hands rather than actual eating. Conscious eating -- actually tasting the food and appreciating it -- is work! It's funny to say that, but it's an act of concentration that doesn't come naturally to us grazers and munchers. Instead of taking the bag of chips or pretzels to your chair in front of the television, take a bowlful. Enjoy them. Notice them as you eat them. Finish the bowl. If you want more, go back and get another serving. But make it a conscious choice instead of just fishing your hand in the bag 10, 20, 30 more times.

And Kellie, YES! Even if I've eaten very healthfully at a meal and am proud of my choices, if friends start ordering dessert it makes me want to do it! What is that about? I'll have to look at your study...

September 9, 2009 - 8:20am

I loved your point about how we eat more with family and friends. So true! I know if I see a friend eat a big slice of cake its almost as if it gives me permission to do the same. Crazy isn't it?

I did a review on a study which showed that overweight friends eat more when they eat together. A lot more! The researchers took 23 overweight and 42 healthy weight youths and had them spend 45 minutes with either a friend or person they didn't know. Each pair was given games, puzzles and books as well as bowls of chips, cookies, carrots and grapes.

Then the study got interesting when they started to eat :)

September 7, 2009 - 5:27pm
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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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