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," said Frederick Zimmerman, chair of the department of health policy and management at the Fielding School of Public Health at University of California, Los Angeles. "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!'" said Jennifer Harris, 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," said 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," said 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, said 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," said Brian Wansink, 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 said, '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.
Fat trap 3: Many mini meals
Does dinner out with the girls feel like an endless appetizer course? It's no accident: Many popular restaurant chains have introduced inexpensive, hors d'oeuvre--like options that are meant to be ordered in multiple and shared. But beware if you sample from The Cheesecake Factory's "Small Plates & Snacks" menu (which includes mini corn dogs and stuffed mushrooms with fontina and Parmesan cheese), TGI Fridays' "Taste & Share" items (Bacon Mac & Cheese Bites, Corned Beef & Swiss Sliders) or Seasons 52's "Mini Indulgences," nearly two dozen desserts in shot-size glasses (hel-lo, 300-calorie pop of cheesecake!). Smaller portions are good in theory, but most of us have one too many. It's human nature: Research shows that when presented with a variety of foods, people overeat by as much as 20 percent.
Not to mention, the scaled-down price point encourages us to order more, more, more. The real danger is that you can forget how much you've put away. "The evidence of what you've eaten is a tiny, empty hors d'oeuvre plate, which feeds the illusion that you haven't had much," said Wendy Bazilian, RD, author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet.
Fight back If you're sharing small plates, ask for them all at once so you can serve yourself a sensible amount and not graze.
Fat trap 4: Good foods next to bad
You know how parents warn kids that hanging out with the wrong crowd could corrupt them? That's what's happening at supermarkets, explains Phil Lempert, an expert analyst on consumer behavior and marketing trends and founder of SupermarketGuru.com: "In the produce department, you'll have a stack of strawberries next to a display of pastry shells and canned whipped cream." Once a healthy zone for produce and dairy, market perimeters have been infiltrated by empty calories—some 23 percent of all promotional displays for packaged goods are now located in that area, according to Point of Purchase Advertising International.
Those racks of chips and crackers near the hummus (good luck, baby carrots) are there for good reason. "Anything that makes the food easier to grab increases the likelihood that you'll buy it," notes Dr. Deborah A. Cohen, author of A Big Fat Crisis. In fact, research shows that the more you see foods you otherwise might have skipped (like that chocolate sauce in the berry aisle), the more familiar and comfortable they become, upping the odds that you'll give in.
Fight back Stick to your list, yes—but leave room for a little spontaneous indulgence, suggests Lempert: "Draw three lines at the bottom of your list (or add three blank bullets on your smartphone list-making app). When you want something you didn't plan for, write it into one of the slots before tossing it in your cart." This way, you get to splurge without going off the rails.