Overeating is tricky. First, you may not even realize you’re doing it. Second, you may not know why you’re eating too much, because some triggers are downright counterintuitive. Here are four sneaky reasons you may be taking in too many surplus calories, and what you can do to stop it.
Fitness food marketing
I think we all know that simply eating a food won’t make us more fit, but a recent study published in the Journal of Marketing Research found that when foods are fitness-branded, some of us may unknowingly eat more and exercise less. In the Penn State study “restrained” eaters (people constantly concerned about their weight) were given identical snacks, one labeled “Trail Mix” and the other labeled “Fitness,” which had a picture of running shoes on the packaging. The study volunteers were asked to pretend they were snacking at home, and were given eight minutes to taste and rate the product. In a second phase of the study, subjects had the opportunity to work out as vigorously as they wanted to on a stationary bike. Scientists found that unless the food was specifically forbidden by their diet, people who were trying to watch their weight ate more of the fitness snack than the trail mix. And these eaters also didn’t work out as vigorously as those who ate the trail mix, apparently seeing the food as a substitute for exercise.
In my experience, the best way to deflect the effects of food marketing is to raise your awareness. One analogy I often use with clients is getting out of debt. In that situation, you create a budget, and set a goal of carefully thinking through your purchases, rather than buying things impulsively, or based on emotion.
Food can be approached the same way. Before reaching for something, check in with your body to determine if you’re hungry. If you aren’t, think about why you want to eat–are you bored, tired, frustrated, or rebelling against a too strict diet? Once you’re aware of the trigger you can address it head on. And if you are hungry, consciously think through what will allow you to hit what I call the “just right” trifecta–full (but not too full), satisfied, and energized. If a food’s packaging or marketing doesn’t align with your instincts about what your body needs to feel just right, getting derailed by marketing will be easy to avoid.
Drinking alcohol–even “skinny” cocktails
I think most people have experienced a loss of inhibition with alcohol, which in turn affects food choices. Numerous clients have told me that an “ah, screw it” attitude brought on by imbibing led to digging into chips and salsa, or ordering a side of fries or dessert.
A new Texas Tech University study, published the journal Obesity, highlights why. Researchers found that alcohol makes women’s brains more sensitive to the smell of food, thus increasing caloric intake. In the study, 35 non-vegetarian, non-smoking healthy weight women were given either alcohol or a saline placebo intravenously prior to eating. The women’s responses to both food and non-food aromas were measured using brain scans before a meal. Scientists found that in those who received alcohol, the brain responded more to food odors, and the majority of this group–two-thirds–ate more at lunch.
In short, the potential impact of alcohol on weight goes beyond the calories cocktails themselves provide. And if you typically order “skinny” drinks, the effect may be enhanced. A University of North Texas Health Science Center study found that drinks made with artificial sweetener rather than sugar resulted in an 18 p[ercent greater increase in blood alcohol concentration.
If you know that drinking is likely to make you want to eat more, strategize before you take your first sip. If you’re going to a restaurant check out the menu online ahead of time, pre-decide what to order, and stick to it. Ask for a tall glass of water along with your drink to slow your pace, and keep the bread basket or chips out of arm’s reach. If you’re hosting a get together, serve up lots of healthy fare, especially finger foods that pack fewer calories for a larger volume, like cut veggies, shrimp cocktail, olives, popcorn, and fruit. Even if you lose track of exactly how much you’ve eaten over the course of the party, you’ll still be less likely to rack up too many calories.
A great deal of research shows that overall marriage is good for your health. But a new European study from University of Basel found that while married couples generally eat healthier, they tend to be less active, and weigh significantly more. The researchers compared marital status to body mass index (BMI), which measures weight in relation to height, in over 10,000 people across nine countries. In every country, couples had higher BMIs than singles–whether men or women. The differences were also small between countries, highlighting the likelihood of the connection, and research in the U.S. has shown a similar pattern. One University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill study found that women who get married in their early 20s gain an average of 24 pounds in the first five years, and men in the same age group gain an average of 30 pounds.
Whether you’re about to get hitched or you’ve been coupled for some time, you can alter your weight fate. The two biggest rules of thumb: don’t use food as entertainment; and eat for your body’s needs, not your partner’s. Many couples I’ve counseled fall into a rut of using food as their primary way of spending time together–going out to dinner, or for ice cream, ordering pizza, making brunch…Try mixing things up and plan activities that don’t revolve around food (go to a play, art gallery or museum, or do something active, like hiking, biking, or indoor rock climbing), or involve healthy eating (visit a farmer’s market instead of a food court).
Also, if your partner is a different size, don’t mimic his or her eating habits. I’ve had numerous clients pack on pounds because they started splitting meals or enjoying equal portions with a partner who had much higher calorie needs. If it’s taco night, and you don’t think you can afford to eat as much as your significant other, turn your tacos into lettuce boats and forgo some of the extras, like cheese and sour cream. Being in a relationship doesn’t have to mean eating the exact same meals or portions, or even eating at the same time. Bottom line: post-nuptial weight gain typically results from a pattern of overeating. If you can reverse that you can undo the poundage.
OK, this one may seem like a no-brainer, but many of my clients snack when they’re not hungry, sometimes because they’ve heard that eating small frequent meals is best for weight loss, and by the end of the day they’ve just simply eaten too much. A new study published in the journal Eating Behaviors found that indeed, snacking in the absence of hunger can cause just as much weight gain as consuming high calorie foods or oversized portions. In the study, researchers offered volunteers a chocolate snack after they’d just eaten as much as they wanted of a similar snack food. Three quarters of the group accepted the second snack even though they should not have felt hungry. Scientists found that those who ate the most tended to be more impulsive, and were more responsive to food rewards. They also had higher BMIs, which suggests that repeated snacking in the absence of hunger is a weight gain culprit.
I see this pattern often in my practice. When clients submit food journals I ask them to track their level of hunger or fullness both before and after meals and snacks, as well as their thoughts, feelings, mood, and insights. By beginning to pay attention to this, many find that they often eat when not hungry, perhaps because food was offered to them, or because they thought the snack was healthy (e.g. nuts are good for me!). Other common reasons include eating out of habit, because others are eating, or due to an emotional cue, like anxiety. If you find yourself falling into this trap, experiment with what it feels like to allow actual hunger to guide you. You’ll quickly learn how to adjust your portions and meal timing so you are physically hungry every time you eat, a pattern that can result in enjoying your food more, while simultaneously slimming you down.
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health's contributing nutrition editor. She privately counsels clients in New York, Los Angeles, and long distance. Cynthia is also the sports nutrition consultant to the New York Rangers NHL team and the New York Yankees MLB team, and is board certified as a specialist in sports dietetics.