Portion Distortion: How to Avoid Overeating

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve last written–it’s midterm season! Luckily they’re almost over, I just have my Anatomy and Physiology lab practical tomorrow and then no more tests for a while. Anyway, I’ve written before about the food psychology research seminar I’m in–the lab that runs it has done some incredible work, especially on the environmental factors determine how much people eat. What’s that you say? Isn’t how much you eat just determined by how hungry you are, or when you feel full? Not according to research. It’s been very well established that how much you eat is strongly influenced by many factors outside of your physical hunger/satisfaction. Here are some things to watch out for.

People tend to:

  • serve themselves more food when they have larger plates vs. when they have smaller plates
  • serve themselves more food when they have larger serving utensils vs. when they have smaller serving utensils
  • eat more food when they are served (or serve themselves) more vs. when they are served (or serve themselves) less; the same goes for package size–so people tend eat more from larger packages than from small ones

  • eat more food the more people they dine with
  • pour more of a drink into a short, wide glass than a tall, narrow one
  • eat more in total when meal components are separate than when they are in a mixed dish (e.g. meat, rice, and vegetable separated on the plate vs. mixed together in a stir-fry)
  • eat more when there is more variety of foods available (e.g. at a buffet)
  • eat more when the food is within reach than when it is not (e.g. if your serving plates are on the kitchen table vs. on the counter)
  • eat more when a food is within view than when it is not (e.g. cookies left out on the counter vs. kept in a cabinet)
  • eat more when less effort is involved (e.g. shelled vs. unshelled peanuts)
  • eat more of a serving when the size of the unit of food is larger than when it is smaller (e.g. one 4-oz chocolate bar vs. four 1-oz chocolate bars)– this one’s actually what I’m exploring in the class now!

If you have a tendency to overeat (I know I do), these phenomena translate to tips that are so easy to incorporate into your life so that you won’t even notice that you’re eating less. For instance–keep snacks behind a closed door in a cabinet and you won’t be as tempted to reach for them. Serve your meal on smaller plates and you’ll serve yourself less, and then you’ll eat less. I make a habit of only keeping individually portioned snacks around in my dorm- yogurt, instant oatmeal packets, single-serve microwave popcorn, bananas, apples, etc.

Anyway, in the obesogenic environment in which we reside, those are some of the ways you can resist the tide. But, as you know, my hope is that some day the tide will turn–and I may be about to be a part of that change at my university. Stay tuned!

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