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You work out regularly, and you watch what you eat -- so why do you have to lie down to button your skinny jeans?
Things around you, from the candles on your dining-room table to those super-cute dessert plates, are setting you up to overindulge. "But if you understand the external forces that make you buy and eat more, you can avoid the pitfalls," says Brian Wansink, PhD, a FITNESS advisory board member and the author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. Here's how to spot -- and sidestep -- 15 diet traps.Diet Trap: Eating Slowly
Mom's been telling you for years to stop shoveling in your food, and you know that this bad habit makes you consume more calories. But eating too slowly can also backfire. Research shows that the longer a meal lasts, the likelier we are to reach for a third glass of wine or dinner roll. "Just sitting at the table means a greater chance of nibbling on something, even if you're not hungry," says Sasha Loring, a psychotherapist and mindfulness teacher at Duke Integrative Medicine.
Sidestep It: A meal should last 45 minutes: long enough for you to enjoy it, but not so much that you'll overeat. Make a 45-minute playlist, and get up after the last song.Diet Trap: Low-Fat Labels
When a food -- even chips or cookies -- is labeled low-fat, we think it's healthy and tend to go overboard, research shows.
Sidestep It: Take a look at the serving size, and portion that amount into baggies, suggests Genevieve Smith, 32, a teacher from South Jamesport, New York. She prepares her own 100-calorie packs of baked chips and whole-grain crackers. A bonus: Smaller packages provide a stopping point, so you can decide whether you want to keep eating. If you think you've downed an entire serving, you're more likely to feel satisfied.Diet Trap: Meals in Front of the TV
Fess up: How many times this week did you dine under the influence of TV? Kids in a University of Toronto study who ate in front of the tube consumed, on average, 228 more calories than those who didn't. "If you're distracted during a meal, you'll enjoy your food less and lose track of how much you're eating," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association.
Sidestep It: Can't give up a night with Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin? TiVo 30 Rock and consider it your after-dinner treat. Or do what Jessica Downey, 31, an editor in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, does: "I eat during the commercials. I enjoy my food more because I'm not distracted, and the pauses help me recognize when I'm full."Diet Trap: Too Many Choices
Ever wonder why it's so hard to resist those pastries in the middle of the conference-room table, even if you had a hearty breakfast? Research suggests it's because a plate holding a variety of foods heightens our senses and turns on our taste buds. "Take away the choice and our senses get numbed, making a tray of the same type of muffin look less appealing," says Wansink.
Sidestep It: To help you say no to the bagels and doughnuts at your next meeting, bring a snack of your own, or pick a spot at the table where you'll have to leave your chair to take one. "You'll be more likely to think twice about it, since you'd attract attention getting up," says Taub-Dix.Diet Trap: Bold Color
Ever wondered why lots of fast-food joints use red in their stores and logos? It's because red is a stimulating hue, and it just may increase your appetite.
Sidestep It: In your kitchen, go for blue, which experts believe suppresses hunger. "Blue is a soothing, calming color that can subconsciously help you slow down and enjoy your meal," says Taub-Dix. Not ready for robin's-egg walls? Use blue place mats, or arrange a bouquet of hydrangeas as a centerpiece.Diet Trap: Family-Style Dinners
A serving bowl of fluffy mashed potatoes on the table is just begging you to take a second (or third) helping. Instead, put a full portion on your plate at the beginning of the meal and leave the rest on the kitchen counter; you'll eat less, according to Wansink.
Sidestep It: Make it harder to pig out. When Jill Roth, a 29-year-old therapist in Boulder, Colorado, makes comfort food, like macaroni and cheese, she puts the leftovers in the freezer immediately after she serves her meal. "Since it takes more effort to defrost the mac and cheese, I'm less likely to dip into it all week," she explains. Plus, no serving dishes to scrub!Diet Trap: Mouthwatering Aromas
Can't muster the willpower to keep walking past the bakery once you get a whiff of chocolate-chip cookies and red velvet cupcakes? Studies show that simply smelling a food can increase appetite and stimulate salivation, which will make you eat more if you do indulge.
Sidestep It: Distract yourself so you won't follow your nose. Penny Wrenn, a 32-year-old writer in New York City, takes out her cell phone and checks voice mail or sends a few texts when she walks by the yummy-smelling cafe on her way home from the gym. "It helps me ride out the craving, and more often than not, the urge passes," she says.
Keep the bottle on the table while you eat and you're more likely to refill your glass (100 calories or more a pour).
Sidestep It: Leave the bottle on the counter or in the refrigerator during dinner, and use tall glasses. People in one study poured 28 percent more into short, wide glasses than they did into tall, narrow ones -- even though both glasses held the same amount.Diet Trap: Wining Group Outings
Hitting your favorite restaurant with friends? The celebratory atmosphere means you're more likely to let your dietary guard down. Typically, when you eat with another person, you consume 35 percent more than you would alone, and the amount you eat increases as much as 10 percent with each additional person at the table.
Sidestep It: Practice crowd control by sitting next to the smartest eater, sharing with her or reaching for the same foods she does. To forestall those "Come on, have just one more" pleas when she's out for tapas with her friends, Elizabeth Stephan, a 30-year-old teacher in New York City, always leaves a little food on her plate. "If my friends think I'm still finishing, they'll offer up what's left on the table to others," she says.Diet Trap: Cute Dessert Plates
Those plates you got as a housewarming gift could be upping your sweets intake. In one study, people were asked to rate brownies served on dessert plates, paper plates, and napkins. Although they were all from the same batch, those on real plates were rated "excellent" compared with "nothing special" for those on napkins. Why? Our taste buds are biased by our imagination: We figure that the dessert on the pretty plate is more likely to be delicious, and if we expect a food to taste good, it will. And of course, the tastier it is, the more we eat.
Sidestep It: Put your fine china away. When Jen Huling, 23, a graphic designer in Denver, heard about this research, she headed to her favorite thrift shop for the ugliest (and cheapest) dessert plates she could find.Diet Trap: Buying in Bulk
It may be better for your budget, but loading up at a club store can sabotage your diet if you're not careful. In one study, people who were given large packages of spaghetti, sauce, and meat typically prepared 23 percent more (around 150 extra calories) than those given medium-size ones. "Big packages make you think that your portions can be bigger too," says Wansink.
Sidestep It: When you're unpacking your groceries, separate the contents of giant value packs into several smaller containers.Diet Trap: In-Your-Face Goodies
If candy is in a clear container rather than an opaque one, we'll eat 22 percent more, research shows. "When we see something delicious, the pancreas secretes insulin, which lowers our blood sugar and makes us feel hungry," says Wansink.
Sidestep It: Keep treats under cover. Susan Smith, a 28-year-old bartender in Southold, New York, banishes her boyfriend's favorite snack, cheese, to one of the produce drawers at the bottom of the fridge. "If it's not right in front of me, I'm less likely to reach for it," she explains.Diet Trap: Mood Lighting
You may be tempted to dim the overhead lights before you sit down to dine with your sweetie, but studies show that it may spur your appetite. "Soft lighting calms you down, making you more comfortable and uninhibited," says Wansink. The result? You reach for that monster-size serving of fettuccine Alfredo and pile on extra Parmesan. But too-bright lights are also bad news: They stimulate your senses and can cause you to gulp and go.
Sidestep It: Ditch the candlelit meals and the bright fluorescent lights, and find a happy medium.Diet Trap: Icy Temperatures
Restaurants and theaters often keep thermostats low. That's a bummer for your waistline, because your body needs to eat more to stay warm, says Wansink. In hot temps, you'll drink more liquids and eat less.
Sidestep It: Set your thermostat between 68 and 75 degrees, and bring a cardigan when you go out to eat or to the movies.Diet Trap: Easy Access
Are you more likely to indulge in a slice of apple pie a la mode (a) if you have to bake it from scratch or (b) if it's sitting on your kitchen counter? It's a no-brainer; we're lazy when it comes to snacks. That's what a Columbia University researcher found: Animals that had to press a lever 10 times to get food ate more often than those who had to do it 100 times.
Sidestep It: Kimberly Irby, 29, a healthcare database manager in Denver, avoids buying treats at the supermarket. This way, if her sweet tooth strikes, she has to walk to a nearby ice cream shop. "I often skip dessert, but only because I don't want to make the effort to go and get it," says Irby. "If it was sitting in my freezer, I'd eat it for sure."
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, June 2009.