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Eating's cues can be subtle or unseen

January 14, 2008|Shari Roan

People can be influenced to eat unhealthful food, or more food than they should, without even realizing it.

* Advertising matters. One study, published last year in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that people think they are eating healthfully if it's advertised that way. Researchers had people eat Subway meals that contained the same amount of calories as a McDonald's meal, but the people estimated that the Subway meal contained 35% fewer calories.

* Eating is automatic. A 2004 study in the journal Appetite showed that people who are served bigger portions will eat more. Men given large bags of potato chips ate triple the number of chips -- an extra 311 calories -- compared with men given a small bag of chips.

* Visual cues prompt eating. A 2004 study in the Annual Review of Nutrition found that people ate 69% more jelly beans when they were offered in a mixed assortment than a group offered jelly beans sorted by color.

* The setting matters. A 2005 study in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that the more pleasant the environment, the more people will eat. People shown a picture of a smiling person poured more of a drink, drank more and rated the drink more favorably than people shown pictures of a frowning person.

* Portions direct eating. A 2003 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that doubling the size of an entree increased overall food intake 25%. The consumers did not compensate for the bigger entree by decreasing the intake of other food on their plates.

* Other people influence eating. A 1992 study in Physiology & Behavior found that food consumption increased 28% when one other person was present and 71% when six or more companions were present.

* Eating is contagious. A study published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine showed that obesity can spread through social networks. A person's chances of becoming obese increased 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese in the same time period. If one sibling became obese, the chance that the other would become obese increased 40%.

* Marketing matters. Several studies published in the 1970s and 1980s show that doubling the shelf space of an item in a grocery store increases sales of the item as much as 40%.

-- Shari Roan

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Change must be more than lip service

Some health experts say community-wide changes are required to curb the obesity epidemic. Among the proposals:

* Label all food, including restaurant food, for nutritional content.

* Reduce portion sizes.

* Remove food vending machines from schools, offices and public buildings.

* Restrict food advertising.

* Restrict where food can be sold.

* Enact zoning laws to limit fast-food outlets.

* Rate local restaurants on health and nutrition information and portion sizes.

* Counter-advertise to remind people of the harm of overeating and unhealthful eating.

* Ban trans fats.

Others say that while the environment is a powerful influence on eating, individuals can fight it. Some strategies:

* Keep a food diary to become more aware of what you're eating and how much.

* Use portion-control plates and cups.

* Make one small rule change at a time. For example, substitute one favorite, but unhealthful food, for something similar but more healthful, such as air-popped popcorn instead of potato chips.

* Avoid the places where you are most likely to overeat and the people with whom you tend to overeat.

* Hide food at home. Don't leave it out on counters.

* Use life transitions (such as moving to a new city, starting a new job, having a baby, going on a long vacation) to establish new, healthier habits that aren't influenced by the old environmental triggers.

* Don't walk by vending machines or drive by fast-food restaurants. Change your routes to keep these cues out of sight.

* Realize that replacing old habits with new ones takes a long time.

* Restrict calories during the active phase of dieting and rely on regular exercise during the maintenance phase.

* Think of prevention. Parents should establish healthy eating habits for their children by keeping sodas and most snack foods out of the house, limiting portion sizes and never asking children to finish everything on their plates.

-- Shari Roan

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