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Seriously—why it is you always pick the muffin over the fruit bowl? Or eat way more at a restaurant than you do in your kitchen?

In a recent survey by Student Health 101, more than 7 out of 10 students acknowledged that how accessible foods are significantly influences how they eat. Science agrees. Our “choices” have far more to do with our environment than we realize, according to a large body of research. What we eat and drink is often our default response to the sights, smells, and activities around us.

If our eating is driven by forces beyond our consciousness, are we helpless to change it? No. The trick is to reduce our exposure to unhealthy cues and introduce other cues that help us eat healthfully without a struggle—and this doesn’t mean skipping the café or restaurant. Some of these strategies suit certain environments— a cafeteria, a sit-down restaurant, a buffet event, etc.—but they’re all relevant and actionable in some (or all) public eating places.
Try slightly smaller portions

It’s OK to start small. You’re not being rationed. You can go back for more—but you may be surprised to find that you don’t want to. Smaller portions can work just as well as larger ones to help us feel full, research suggests.

Lighter snacks leave us feeling just as full after 15 minutes as if we’d eaten a larger portion, according to a 2013 study in Food Quality and Preference. One group of students was given small portions of chocolate, apple pie, and potato chips, while another was given larger portions—a difference of 1,175 calories. The group with the larger portions ate 77 percent more calories than those in the small portion group. However, after 15 minutes, each group said their hunger and cravings were satisfied.

To make this work, eat slowly. Put down your flatware between every couple of bites. Savor the flavors. Chat. Slowing it down allows time for your body and mind to register what you’re eating, let go of the hunger pangs, and start to feel satisfied, according to researchers at Harvard Medical School. Leptin, the “satiety hormone,” plays a significant role in regulating appetite; it interacts with other hormones and neurotransmitters to tell us when we’re full, research shows. But when we eat too quickly, we outpace those signals and overshoot the mark. Again, it helps to eat with the slowpokes.

Take a moment

First, check your mood. Second, check the food options. Give yourself time to do these:

Breathe deep and think about kittens

Before you approach the self-serve counter or buffet, check in with yourself. If you’re rattled, stressed, furious, apathetic, or whatever, think about something calming and cheering (you can’t go wrong with kittens) or do a two-minute mindfulness exercise (see our series Mind your mind in BetterU).

Why? Because science has proven what we already knew: When we’re feeling horrible, we make horrible food choices.

  • In a series of studies, when participants were in a bad mood, their food priorities shifted. Instead of focusing on foods that would fuel them up and taste great, they picked high-fat, high-sugar, high-salt junk bombs, according to the Journal of Consumer Psychology (2014).

Scan your options before selecting what to eat, then serve yourself

Checking out all your options before selecting what to eat, and serving yourself, can help with weight management, according to a 2008 study published in the journal Obesity.

Pay attention to your eating crowd

Who you eat with influences what you eat and how much you eat.

Eat with the people who make healthy food choices

When we eat with health-conscious companions, we’re likely to nom down less than we would when we’re snacking or dining with the junk-foodies, according to research conducted at The Mann Lab, an eating behavior lab at the University of Minnesota. And when we make healthy eating choices, we help our companions do the same.

  • In an experiment, when two out of three friends were secretly instructed by researchers to select only vegetables from a tray filled with tempting goods, their counterpart (who wasn’t in on it) nibbled on fewer snacks overall (compared with people whose friends ate the treat foods) (Appetite, 2012).
  • This works both ways: When an undercover researcher ate more cookies, so, inevitably, did their unsuspecting companion (Psychological Bulletin, 2003). To decrease your cookie consumption, grab a bite with the carrot crunchers.

Eat with the people who take it slow

When we eat with others, we pace ourselves according to how quickly or slowly they are eating, writes Dr. Brian Wansink in Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam Dell, 2006).

Seek out a well-lit seat

Seek out a window seat facing away from the food counter

Here’s the odd thing about where we sit in a restaurant: it’s synced with what we order and eat. This is what happens in studies, writes Dr. Wansink in Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (William Morrow, 2014):

  • Diners sitting by a window or in a well-lit area of the restaurant order healthier food.
  • Diners sitting at a dark table or booth order heavier food, and more of it.
  • Diners sitting close to a TV order more fried foods.
  • Diners sitting furthest from the front door of the restaurant eat the fewest salads and are more likely than others to order dessert.

In addition, diners facing the food counter or buffet are more likely to get seconds, compared to those who sit with their backs to the food, according to a 2008 study in Obesity.

Why? Researchers haven’t figured this out yet. “The facts are what they are, but why they happen is not always clear,” Dr. Wansink explains in Mindless Eating. The study findings don’t necessarily mean that changing where you sit will change the way you eat. Maybe health-conscious eaters are drawn to window tables, or big dessert eaters prefer darker corners. Whatever the reason, heavier and less healthy food is more likely to be eaten in the dark recesses of the restaurant, so it can’t hurt to stay in the light.

Literally watch what you've eaten

Seeing the food debris pile up as we eat (a visual cue) helps moderate our appetites so that we automatically eat less. This is more in our control at home than when we’re eating out, though you may find it’s helpful to have the server hold off on clearing the table.

Here’s a restaurant-based example of how this can work:

  • In a study involving 53 students and large supplies of chicken wings on Super Bowl Sunday, researchers found that when waitstaff let the chicken bones pile up on the table, students ate fewer wings. When the chicken bones were removed, students kept eating. The experiment shows the association between visual cues and how much we eat, according to Perceptual and Motor Skills (2007).

Eat what you want and what you need

We’re not into deprivation, and the research has our backs on this one. Holding off on eating what you want can lead to cravings and overeating later, according to research conducted by Dr. Janet Polivy, a psychology professor and market researcher at the University of Toronto Mississauga.

  • Students who were deprived of chocolate craved and consumed more of it than those who could freely partake in their sweet tooth desires, according to Dr. Polivy’s study in the International Journal of Eating Disorders (2005).

That said, how do we gently nudge ourselves more toward greens than grease? Like this:

The Half-Plate Rule

Fill half of your plate with fruit, veggies, or salad and fill the other half with whatever is calling your name.

This rule applies for seconds, too—just keep the plate 50 percent veg-filled, and you’re cleared for round two of mac and cheese.

When you use the half-plate rule, you’re less likely to go back for more, and you’re actually satisfied with a lot less than you think it takes to satisfy you, according to researchers at Cornell’s Food and Brand Lab.

Bonus strategy: Skip the bread—or ask for olive oil instead of butter.

  • The bread on the table often adds up to a large chunk of our meal consumption, according to a 2003 study in the International Journal of Obesity. To effortlessly moderate your bread intake, ask for olive oil instead of butter. In the study, people who were served bread with olive oil ate less bread overall. People who were served butter instead of olive oil ate far more bread—maybe because we tire of olive oil (with its stronger flavor) sooner than we tire of butter.

Choose smaller plates and glasses

Our portion size is less about our food needs and more about the size of the plate. That’s because our perception of how much chili we’re ladling into the bowl, or how much juice we’re pouring into the glass, is very much influenced by the size of that bowl or glass. Smaller serving ware = smaller portions.

  • The smaller the bowl, the less food you’re likely to eat, according to a 2012 study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
  • Using a smaller plate and serving yourself help with weight management, according to a 2008 study in Obesity.
  • Bartenders do this too—even though they’re trained in serving sizes. That’s how powerful this effect is. In a 2005 study, bartenders poured 30 percent more alcohol into short, wide tumblers than they poured into highball glasses, when mixing the same drink, reported the journal BMJ.

Get help or find out more

Switch up your food cues: Cornell University

Tested food apps and trackers: Wellocracy

Personalized food and exercise SuperTracker: US Department of Agriculture [USDA]

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think: Brian Wansink
Bantam Dell, 2006

Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life: Brian Wansink
HarperCollins, 2014

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Chelsey Taylor is executive editor of Student Health 101. She taught English in South Korea as a Fulbright Fellow and has a BA in anthropology from Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts.

Lucy Berrington is the editor of Student Health 101. Her work has been published in numerous publications in the US and UK. She has an MS in health communication from Tufts University School of Medicine, Massachusetts, and a BA from the University of Oxford, UK.