Eating out is proven to make you eat more, and eat poorly. The factors stacked against you are as high as that piping hot pile of French fries on your plate—a group dinner, family style platters, large plates and even the lighting can subconsciously prompt you to overeat.
The good news: Being aware of the many ways the environment sways how often you pick up your fork can help you create healthier eating habits. Here’s what to look for.
Eating in Groups
The more people you eat with, the more you’ll chow down. A 1992 study at Georgia State University showed that meals eaten with one other dining companion were 28 percent larger than those eaten alone. Consumption increased for each additional person at the table, and meals with six other people were associated with a whopping 71 percent increase in food intake.
This is typically the case when the atmosphere is relaxed and enjoyable, which may cause you to lose track of how much you’re eating. Tense eating environments, such as an anxiety-inducing first date, tend to have the reverse effect.
Dining with others influences how much you munch. Eating companions may serve as benchmarks, a way to gauge how much you’re consuming without having to count calories, or we may naturally mirror others’ behaviors as a form of social bonding. Studies on students have shown that they vary the number of cookies they eat and water they drink depending on how much fellow students are consuming.
Even the sequence of who orders first can affect your meal choice. If your friend goes ahead of you and orders the fried chicken with mashed potatoes, you’re more likely to say “what the hell” and cave into your mac and cheese craving, according to Kristin Kirkpatrick, R.D., M.S., Wellness Manager for Cleveland Clinic's Lifestyle 180 program, and YouBeauty Nutrition Advisor. “Order first to prevent being influenced by your friends,” she says.
Don’t see anything on the menu that looks healthy and diet-friendly? Think of the menu as a snapshot of all of the food they have in the kitchen—and create your own meal. “See the entrees as a suggestion,” says Kirkpatrick. “If they have brown rice in one entrée and black beans in another, ask if they can put them together for a healthy meal.”
The right lighting not only makes your date look better, it’ll also make you eat more.
According to some researchers, soft, soothing lighting may make us feel less inhibited and less self-conscious, encouraging us to linger, nibble and imbibe. Bright lights tend to make us to eat more food, faster, which is why they’re often found in high-volume restaurants (like fast food joints). Studies suggest that the later the time of day—and the dimmer the restaurant—the harder it is for people to restrain their food and alcohol intake. No need to freak out on your first date (when women tend to eat less anyway), but if you’re a frequent restaurant-goer, just be aware of what mood lighting could do to your waistline.
Most of the food we eat is served in bowls, plates and glasses. While we mentally rely on dinnerware to measure our portions, their shapes and sizes can create optical illusions (anyone who’s sipped Syrah from a glass the size of a fish bowl knows this).
Large plates make a serving of food appear small; smaller plates make the same portion appear significantly larger. This throws off your estimate of how much you’ve actually consumed. Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab has found that people ate 22 percent less just by switching from a12-inch to a 10-inch dinner plate.
The same holds true for drinking glasses. We focus on the height and downplay the width when measuring the amount of liquid poured into a glass. When veteran Philadelphia bartenders were asked to pour alcohol into short, wide tumbler glasses, they poured 20 percent more than what they poured in tall, narrow glasses.
Beware Pitchers, Family Style Platters and Candy Bowls
Another strong influence on eating habits is how easy it is to access food. Cafeteria studies have shown that people ate more ice cream when the lid was off and drank more water when the pitcher was placed on their table rather than having to get up and grab it.
Visible, easily accessible food may be linked to higher consumption, so you might want to think twice before serving dinner family-style or leaving chips on the counter. And it’s no surprise that when secretaries were offered chocolate candies either on their desks or six feet away from their desks, they ate double the amount when the candies were within arm’s reach and consistently underestimated how much they’d eaten.
Distractions in the environment—such as reading, playing on the computer or watching television— prevent you from keeping track of your food intake. Studies show that eating while watching TV or playing a computer game impairs your memory for how much you’ve eaten and leads you to overeat at your next meal. Another study, published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, showed that people who ate lunch while listening to a detective story ate significantly more than those who were fully focused on eating. Why? Distraction diminished their self-restraint.
Tricks to Beat the Restaurant Bloat
Check out the restaurant’s menu online and make a reservation. This allows you to pick a healthy option before you’re too starved to make wise choices and cuts down on waiting time at the restaurant, which only breeds temptation. “While you wait, you’re highly influenced by the smells and the foods you see,” says Kirkpatrick.
Since you rarely chow on a fancy appetizer at home, stick with the same straightforward eating style at restaurants. “Rather than ordering an appetizer and a main meal, order one thing at a time,” suggests Kirkpatrick. “Wait 15 minutes and then ask yourself if you really want to order an entrée. Often one appetizer at a restaurant will be totally sufficient for dinner.”
If you do opt for an entrée, Sheri Pruitt, Ph.D., the director of Behavioral Science Integration at Kaiser Permanente, recommends portioning out your meal before you dive in, and then asking your waiter to put the rest in a to-go box (or put it in the fridge if you’re dining at home). Kirkpatrick recommends going one step further to prevent overindulging: When you order, ask the waiter to box up half of your entrée before serving it to you. “It takes away the opportunity for you to continue to pick at your plate,” says Kirkpatrick. “And you won’t see what you’re missing.”
To fight portion distortion, swap out your short, wide glassware for narrow, tall glasses and use smaller, salad plates, which trick your mind into thinking you’re eating more food than you actually are.
Your waistline will thank you.
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