Skip to main content

Sneaky Factors That Might Be Making You Eat More

Mar 2 2021
6 min read
Close-up of woman sticking hand into bowl of candy.

You don’t think you’re overeating. You seem to eat like everyone else.

You understand that the path to a healthy weight is to eat the amount of food your body needs. But you’re gaining weight.

If that sounds like you, consider these questions: What is the size of your favorite bowl? You likely fill it with cereal, regardless of the suggested serving size. What are portions like at your favorite restaurant? That may be what you consider a satisfying meal.

Virtually no one can accurately judge how much they eat, even nutritionists. We rely on personal norms like these, and research shows that they are subtly and consistently influenced by a number of environmental factors. Your body can tell you how much food it needs.

But your environment — where you eat, what you eat on, who you eat with, how your food is presented, and more — can create so much static that you don’t clearly hear those hunger and fullness signals.

Shine a Light on Your Eating and Food Environment

The effort it takes to obtain food is directly related to how much we eat. Do you have to go to the pantry? Do you have to drive to the store? Do you even have to reach? In one study, secretaries ate 5.6 more HERSHEY’S KISSES when the candies were within an arm’s reach than when the stash was 6 feet away. Simply put, if your food is convenient, you’ll eat more of it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, size matters too, in terms of packaging and plating. We register a giant candy bar as a single-serving treat, for example. And we tend to consume more when eating off larger dishes.

Sheer variety also makes a difference, since we eat more when we have more choices — just think of the last time you were at a buffet.

Even colors come into play: Bright hues and attractive packaging are proven temptations.

The general ambience of our eating environment is another sneaky factor. Is it crowded and noisy, or comfortable and relaxed where you’re dining? The more inviting the so-called atmospherics, the longer we may stay and the more we may eat. Frenetic environments can also contribute to overeating because we tend to gobble down our food without paying attention to hunger cues.

And finally, who we’re sharing a meal with affects how much we take in. Many of us will eat more with a large group of people we enjoy — whether we’re meeting friends for dinner at a restaurant or hanging out with the gang on Super Bowl Sunday. The distraction of visiting with others and lingering over a meal can also make it hard to stop overeating.

Make These Factors Work for You

Now that you understand how these factors influence how much you eat, you can “flip them” to work in your favor. Here’s how:

  • Limit your purchases of convenient, ready-to-eat snack foods. When you do buy tempting items, store them in opaque containers, wrapped in foil, or otherwise out of sight.

  • Purchase the smallest packages you can. If you do buy the giant size of something, repackage it into smaller containers.

  • Get in the habit of reading package labels to learn the suggested serving size and number of servings per package. Avoid eating directly from the bag or box; put your serving on a plate.

  • Keep healthy foods at eye level in the refrigerator and put a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter.

  • Avoid serving meals family style. Plate up appropriate portion sizes in the kitchen before bringing food to the table.

  • Use smaller dishes and utensils for foods you should consume in moderation. Eat dinner on a salad plate and salad on a dinner plate.

  • Give yourself less variety for less healthy foods (only one color of jelly beans, for example) and more variety for more healthy foods (lots of different vegetables or fruits in a salad).

  • Take a mindful approach to your meals: When you’re eating, just eat. If you do want to read or watch television while you dine, serve up moderate portions on your plate before sitting down.

  • When eating out, make decisions about what and how much to eat before, rather than during, the meal. Order smaller portions to simply decrease the amount of food in front of you.

  • At a buffet or reception, serve up no more than two different kinds of food on your plate at a time.

  • Take a moment before each meal to look at your plate. Identify the smells, colors, and arrangement of food, and assess your current hunger level. This increased awareness will allow you to recall how much you ate after the meal, and also help you recognize how much food you actually need to eat.

  • If you’re dining with a group, model your eating after the behavior of the person at the table who is eating less or eating slowly.
    If you find yourself lingering over a meal, enjoy the setting and company, but have what you don’t eat boxed to go right away. Choose a cappuccino to sit with rather than a rich dessert.

Finally, observe your patterns. Learn which sneaky factors you are most susceptible to in all your eating environments. The result will be a healthier, more confident you.