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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Tame your tableware
Supersized portions, whether it's French fries or frittatas, can make you think bigger is normal. That may override your "I'm full now" body sensors. Just as influential are the size of your plate and the shape of your cup. It's called the size-contrast effect, Wansink says: Bigger plates trick people into believing they're getting smaller servings. So do short, fat glasses. Even bartenders—renowned for their ability to "eyeball" a shot of alcohol accurately—will fill a shorter glass with up to 31 percent more than they pour into a tall, narrow one.
The solution: Avoid jumbo plates, and choose taller, thinner glasses.
Play hard to get
"People tend to eat almost everything you put in front of them," says John DeCastro, PhD, a professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Texas at El Paso. Working alongside Stroebele on the ambience study, DeCastro found that convenience is one of the strongest triggers for overeating and snacking.
Wansink demonstrated the power of proximity in 2002, when he and colleagues gave a gift of Hershey's Kisses to some university secretaries as part of a study. The secretaries ate nine Kisses daily when the candy was on their desks in transparent bowls. Consumption fell to an average of six and a half candies when the sweets were placed in opaque containers with lids, and only four when the bowls were positioned three steps away. That's a difference of up to 2,500 calories a month—and a prescription for gaining nearly 12 pounds per year.
The answer: At family gatherings and other occasions when overeating is likely, serve the food—and then put the serving platters on the counter or even in another room. Buy fewer ready-to-eat snacks, de Castro says, so you'll have to work harder to nibble when you're not hungry. Parcel out snacks into single-serving zip-top bags, Wansink suggests, and avoid buying food in bulk. What if you just can't resist the price on that 60-count box of granola bars? Stow away the extras in the back of the pantry. Out of sight, out of mind, out of tummy.