We talk a lot about environmental cues and eating. For good reason, our environment plays such a significant role in what, and how much, we eat on a daily basis. Now that we know willpower has its limitations, designing the right environment is a key factor in successful weight loss.
There are numerous environmental cues that can cause poor food choices. Some of these environmental cues include physical proximity to the food, the visibility of the food (food left on kitchen counters vs. put away in cupboards), as well as the obvious triggers such as taste, smell, and visual appearance.
New research suggests an additional environmental cue that can affect your food-based decision-making process. As it turns out, whether or not you have to serve yourself plays a big role in how much you eat. [1,2]
This research has found that when someone else serves you food, be it the wait staff at your favorite restaurant or a friend at a dinner party, you are more likely to choose unhealthier options and consume larger portions. This could help explain why eating out at restaurants is so detrimental to weight loss.
What’s happening is a diffusion of responsibility. Whenever you are being served by another you can justify eating whatever is put in front of you by rationalizing that it was out of your control. Since the food choice and portion size were out of your control, you don’t have to take ownership and responsibility for that choice.
Additionally, these findings translate more broadly to the amount of physical work needed to serve oneself. In one study, when a higher amount of physical effort was required to obtain a snack (i.e. serving oneself by scooping snack items into a sample cup vs. pre-filled sample cups), participants chose unhealthy snack choices significantly less often than healthier alternatives.
If increased physical effort (higher difficulty of obtaining the desired food) and serving yourself lead to better food choices, here are a few simple strategies you can use to position yourself in better control:
When Eating Out
Ask for an extra plate. When your food arrives, serve yourself a smaller portion to the clean plate. This can help you better control how much you’re eating by giving you more control, by creating distance (mentally and physically) to the plate of food, and by creating an extra step between you and more food. Then, easily box up leftovers to be eaten at a later time.
Ask your server to box half of your entree before they ever bring it to your table. This way, after you’ve finished the remaining portion, to eat more requires the extra step of digging into the takeout bag for the leftovers.
When Eating At Home
When making a meal at home, leave leftovers in the other room. Having the serving platter on the table makes it very easy to go for a second helping, likely leading to higher calorie consumption. Instead, serve yourself a small amount, and leave the extra in the other room. This will require you to get up and travel to serve yourself another helping. This increased physical effort can act as a barrier and help you eat less.
If you’re at a friend or family member’s house for dinner, insist that you serve yourself. When others serve us food, they tend to give more than we’d give ourselves. (Think to the last Thanksgiving when you politely asked for someone to serve you some mashed potatoes… No, not THAT much!) Avoid feeling obligated to clean your plate (and help take the load off your host) by making up your own plate.
The best strategy is clear: taking responsibility for your food choices and maintaining some control over what, and how much, you’re eating is imperative to maintaining a healthy diet and losing weight. Use these strategies to put yourself in better control when you find yourself in tough social situations.
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