4 New Ways to Outsmart Fat Traps

All-appetizer menus. Chocolate sauce in the produce aisle. Here's how to avoid the latest overeating pitfalls.

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You know to ignore the supersize bags of chips and other blatant tactics that fatten the food industry's coffers, along with your waistline. That's the good news. The less cheery: "Food marketers have upped their game," says Frederick Zimmerman, PhD, chair of the department of health policy and management at the Fielding School of Public Health at UCLA. "As a result, it's increasingly difficult to make healthy choices." But not impossible. We asked insiders to dish on the latest marketing ploys so you'll be on to them—and better able to resist.

Fat trap 1: Menu mind games

Eating out is better for you than it used to be—at least, that's the perception: 86 percent of people surveyed by NPD Group said restaurants offer more healthy choices than they did two years ago. Still, many eateries subtly steer you toward less nutritious options. "Restaurants will say, 'We offer healthy items. It's not our fault people don't get them!'" says Jennifer Harris, PhD, director of marketing initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. "Yet they spend a lot of money to encourage people to buy other things." Margo Wootan, DSc, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), agrees: "At many chain restaurants, you look at a menu with pages of delicious-sounding food, then you get to the 'lite' section in back and there are six simple items—it's stacking the deck." (Not surprisingly, when better-for-you fare is relegated to the end of a menu, we're 47 percent less likely to order it, per research from Carnegie Mellon University.) And all too often the "healthy" menu falls flat in the taste department. "Some restaurants don't put the same care into making the healthy options delicious," says Wootan.

Also sneaky! Restaurants want to sell dishes with the most markup, so "they engineer their menus to direct you to items with a higher profit margin, which tend to be the lower-quality, starchier or otherwise more processed food," says Sybil Yang, assistant professor of hospitality at San Francisco State University. That's why next to the $24 grilled fish with veggies you'll see the $15 crab fettucine, looking like a comparatively great deal. But really it's the most marked-up and fattening thing you could order.

Fight back Read the "lite" portion of the menu first—and stick with restaurants that tend to have tasty low-cal items, says Wootan. Japanese and Greek eateries and national chains such as Seasons 52 and Freshii are generally good options.

Fat trap 2: 'Eat me!' visuals

Ever feel like the junkiest food is leaping off the package to tempt you when you walk the supermarket aisles? It's not your imagination. "Pictures on food labels have become more dynamic, designed to grab your attention and improve attraction," says Brian Wansink, PhD, an expert on consumer and eating behavior at Cornell University and author of the upcoming Slim by Design. "Potato chips now fly out at you from the bag, and more food is shown on plates or in bowls and with garnishing." In the early 1990s, the packaging of one popular sandwich cookie featured only its logo. Today, a 5-inch cookie explodes from a splash of milk.

Appetizing photos of indulgent foods can ramp up cravings. Researchers at the University of Southern California found that images of high-calorie foods increased hunger by 19 percent and the desire for sweets by 21 percent, compared with photos of nonfood items. Meanwhile, German researchers discovered that levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin rose 30 percent after people saw appetizing food images. "Graphic images of food bypass the rational part of your brain that says, 'I'm going to be healthy' and go for the emotional part that generates cravings," notes Martin Lindstrom, author of Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.

Fight back Store your grocery list on an app such as Grocery iQ. If you're often tempted by treats, try Fooducate, an app that lets you scan a food's bar code and find out how virtuous it is. Getting a reality check may kill that craving fast.

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Beth Janes
Last Updated: February 04, 2014

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