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Have you ever come across a tray of hors d'oeuvres you didn't sample? Or a bowl of chips? A box of doughnuts? Put something edible in front of us, especially finger food, and many of us will pop it into our mouths -- regardless of whether we're hungry. It's like a reflex, and it probably harks back to our cavewoman days. "Food calls out to us, even if we've just eaten, because we're hard-wired to be turned on by its sight and smell," says Judith Beck, PhD, author of The Beck Diet Solution and director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive Therapy and Research in Philadelphia. "It's nature's way of ensuring our survival, because our ancestors had to eat whenever food was available."
Many millennia later, of course, this biological drive could use an upgrade. "It's mismatched with our current food environment, where, for example, there are 17 kinds of candy at the gas station, video store, and pharmacy," explains Marlene Schwartz, PhD, director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity in New Haven, Connecticut. "The problem is that these drastic changes have occurred in the last 30 years, which isn't enough time for us to have evolved."
That is, as a species, we haven't biologically adapted. But as individuals, we can train ourselves to stop our automatic eating response. The first step is "to be aware that anything you eat that is not for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a planned snack is most likely not consumed out of hunger," says Howard Shapiro, MD, author of Picture Perfect Weight Loss. "It's mindless eating if it's not mealtime." The next step is to have a playbook for the many instances when food can unexpectedly appear. Here's how to handle some of the most common chance encounters.
Freeze! Ask yourself if you're truly hungry -- or are you just not full, advises Tom Kersting, author of Losing Weight When Diets Fail and a psychotherapist in Westwood, New Jersey. "Many people get confused by this distinction, but you should eat only because you're hungry -- not because you aren't full." In other words, if you've already eaten breakfast, you don't really need that chocolate cruller. Sit so you can't see it or so it's as far as possible from you. If your stomach is empty, go ahead and eat the doughnut (but still sit away from the box). It's not the greatest way to start the day, but neither is a meeting.
Freeze! Make a rule for yourself that you eat only when you're seated. So to have that corn chip, pizza roll, and slice of sausage, you'll have to wrap them in a napkin for later. Given that option, you'll probably pass. After all, those bites won't be so appealing once they're cold and covered in lint. "This rule actually cuts out an enormous amount of nibbling, including when you're cooking, clearing plates, or at a street fair," adds Beck.
Freeze! Actually, you're not at all surprised, since this is their usual MO -- just as it's yours to finish their food for them, particularly when you're at a restaurant and you've paid good money for their meals. The fix is to let experience, and not optimism, determine their portion sizes: If they've never finished a burger on their own, then they should split one. If you still have leftovers, toss them. "It's false economy to think you're saving money by cleaning their plates," says Schwartz. "All you're gaining are extra calories you don't want and probably won't enjoy."
Freeze! If you're watching calories, you shouldn't accept a slice thinking you'll have only a taste. "That's walking to the edge of the cliff, leaning over, and trying not to fall," says Schwartz. "Don't set yourself up like that." Instead, simply say, "No, thank you." You don't have to give a reason, and you're not being a party pooper for abstaining. "It's not right to put people in a position where they feel pressured to eat," says Schwartz. In the future, she adds, you might want to start a movement at your workplace for birthdays to be celebrated with bouquets instead of cakes.
Freeze! Move it, and all foods you're likely to pick at, to the back of your refrigerator behind the gallon of milk and carton of OJ, suggests Kersting. "That way, you might not see them and be tempted -- and you're helping to take the instantaneousness out of automatic eating," he says. What should be front and center when you open the fridge door: your favorite fruits and veggies, ideally prewashed and precut.
Freeze! You came to eat. The struggle is doing so moderately when others around you aren't. That's because we're conditioned to eat when others are eating, says Kersting. Try to keep this fact in mind as yet another plate of canapes appears. Also remember that there are plenty of other desires you regularly resist -- say, shoes in the store window, says Beck. This urge to eat everything will also pass. But if you give in this time, don't beat yourself up. You are only human.
Get more tips on how to improve your eating habits:
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, September 2007.