Illustration: Yuko Shimizu
By now we know what we should eat: fruits, veggies, lean meat, and so on. But researchers are finding that how we eat can also have a big impact on our waistlines. Do you stand at the kitchen counter? Indulge in snacks in front of the TV? Decide you're hungry when you smell something savory? Three recent studies suggest a pinch of awareness may be just what the weight loss coach ordered.
1. Sit down, enjoy yourself. Canadian food psychologists gave the same amount of food to people who were either sitting in twos at a table or standing at a kitchen counter eating out of plastic containers. When the researchers tracked what the subjects ate at the next regular meal, they found that the countertop diners ate roughly 30 percent more than those who had been sitting. One reason may be that standing while eating makes a meal feel more like a snack, says Patricia Pliner, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Mississauga and the study's lead author. The takeaway? "Don't eat on the run," she says. It won't feel like a meal, and you may subconsciously grant yourself permission to eat more later.
2. Inhale, but don't indulge. Scientists at Yale University School of Medicine recently discovered that a food's smell lights up different brain regions than its taste does, which could spell trouble for people watching their weight. The circuits aromas activate are designed to make us seek out the food, which psychologically can lead to cravings and possibly binges, says Dana Small, PhD, an associate professor of psychiatry at Yale who ran the study. She compares the effect on the brain to drug-seeking behavior: "The smell puts people into an agitated state, as in, 'Get out of my way; I must have chocolate.'" Being aware of your nose's power over your brain could help. "You might be able to desensitize your brain to tempting food smells by repeatedly ignoring them," says Small.
3. Be conscious. Although it won't surprise anyone who's ever glanced down from the TV to find an empty bag of corn chips, a study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior found that people's caloric intake can balloon by up to 71 percent when they eat in front of the tube. Brian Wansink, PhD, a professor at Cornell University and the author of Mindless Eating, explains that munching while watching TV or even reading can be a bad idea for two reasons: "First, you don't pay attention to whether you've had 14 or 40 chips. Second, you often don't stop eating until the end of the show, regardless of whether you're full." If a snack attack hits during your show, reach for low-calorie, high-fiber foods, such as grapes or air-popped popcorn, rather than calorie-dense foods like ice cream or chips. And never bring the whole package to the couch: Just grab a handful or fill a small bowl.