Prevent Overeating and Enjoy Your Dining Experience

So much goes on around the table while you’re eating, and so much of it can affect your appetite.

So much goes on around the table while you're eating, and so much of it can affect your appetite. Subtle cues—lights, temperature, aromas, the shape of a wine glass, a whiff of espresso—can all tempt you to overindulge.

But a recent analysis of dozens of studies on "food ambience" (those factors around you that tickle the senses) suggests you don't have to give in. Instead, experts say, you can make the environment work for your waistline. Here's how:

Look before you eat
The brighter the lights, the quicker you'll eat. Physiologically speaking, light intensity revs up the nervous system, and you'll often respond by eating too fast. Result: You'll end up stuffing your stomach before your brain can tell you that you're full. Unfortunately, dim lighting is no solution, because it can hide signals of satiety. "We lose track of what we have eaten," says Brian Wansink, PhD, a nutrition-science expert at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. That's why people tend to eat more in candlelit restaurants; they linger, picking at their plates even if they're full.

The antidote: If you have to eat in a brightly lit restaurant like a fast-food joint, Wansink says, remind yourself—repeatedly—to eat slowly. In dimly lit restaurants with more romantic settings, pick one: drink, appetizer, or dessert. And keep yourself attuned to your feelings of fullness. When they come, ask your server to box up what you haven't finished.

Dine on the patio
As a general rule, the hotter the climate, the less people eat, says Nanette Stroebele, PhD, a neuropsychologist at the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center in Denver. She co-authored the recent report on food ambience in Nutrition. Heat slows down your metabolism, so your energy needs and your hunger decline as the mercury rises. Use that to your benefit.

The smart strategy: Ask for an outdoor table whenever the weather cooperates. Out where it's balmy, people seem to prefer food that's less dense and usually less caloric (salads instead of mashed potatoes, for example).

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Trisha Gura
Last Updated: February 22, 2008

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