You're stuffed after a big restaurant dinner -- but then the dessert cart rolls around, and you just have to order that gorgeous chocolate mousse. Or you're munching from a big bag of chips while checking emails, and when you look up, the bag is empty. Sound familiar?
Environmental factors -- like package size, portion size, the variety of food you're served, and the size of your plate -- can influence your eating more than you realize, experts say. Indeed, if we always ate only when we were really hungry and stopped when we were full, there would be no obesity epidemic.
The key, experts say, is to become more aware of these causes of overeating, which can help you resist the temptations and avoid weight gain.
"Once you become aware of the environmental cues that can sabotage your diet, you can react accordingly and make smart decisions," says nutrition expert Susan Moores, RD. Simple things such as bringing tempting snacks into your house, moving the candy jar at work out of sight, making fruits and vegetables more visible in your refrigerator, and eating more deliberately and slowly, can cut down on overeating and help you lose weight, Moores says.
Here are eight factors that can cause overeating and weight gain:
1. Sights, Sounds, and Smells
Overeating can be triggered by the alluring smell of bacon cooking, the sound of popcorn popping, advertisements for junk food, and so on. "You are influenced by your surroundings, and our studies show these kinds of cues result in eating more food," says Cornell University researcher Brian Wansink, PhD, author of Mindful Eating.
2. Distracted Eating
"Eating amnesia" is the act of almost unconsciously putting food in your mouth, usually from a big bag or bowl while sitting in front of the television, reading a book, checking emails, or during happy hour.
It's also easy not to register the tastes you take while cooking, or those last few bites from the kids' plates that you finish off.
Multi-tasking can lead to overeating because you're not paying attention to what you are eating. When you eat more mindfully, you really taste the food -- and are more likely to feel satisfied sooner. "Food should touch more of your senses to be satisfying, instead of just filling in the hole," Moores says.
3. Food, Food Everywhere
Everywhere you turn, there are opportunities to eat -- at drive-through restaurants, vending machines, even gas stations. And when food is in front of us, we tend to eat more of it, experts say.
Wansink and colleagues found that when candy was easily accessible on workers' desks, they ate an average of nine pieces a day, and didn't realize how many they ate. But when the candy was kept in their desk drawers, they ate about six pieces per day. And when they had to get up from their desks to reach the candy six feet away, they only ate four pieces.
Curb your instinct to overeat sweets and snacks by moving them out of sight -- and putting more healthful foods into plain view. Resist the urge to splurge on unhealthy foods by carrying your own healthy snacks.
4. Food that's Fast, Convenient, and Inexpensive
Fast-food restaurants on every corner offering inexpensive food also encourage us to eat more and more often. Combo meal deals sound like a bargain, but they are loaded with fat, sodium, and calories.
Also, "when you eat lots of fast food, it all starts to taste the same, and you can become satisfied with a small range of flavors and sometimes it is hard to get enough," says Moores.
To help yourself resist the temptation, work on developing a taste for the subtle, natural flavors of food, suggests Moores.
Dietitians recommend limiting visits to fast-food restaurants to once a week. And, they say, choose the healthier menu options -- like salads and grilled chicken sandwiches -- even if they cost a little more.
5. Portion Distortion
Our idea of a normal portion has become skewed, in part because so many restaurants serve oversized portions. "Giant portions seem to have evolved into the norm, and many people have trouble understanding how much they should eat," Moores says.
To understand what a portion should look like, pull out the measuring cups, and see how your portions stack up against WebMD's Portion Size Plate tool or the standards from the U.S. government's mypyramid.gov web site.
Another answer to the portion dilemma is to eat more foods that are less calorically dense. These are foods that contain lots of water and fiber, but not many calories -- like fruits, vegetables, salads, and broth-based soups. Researcher Barbara Rolls, PhD, and colleagues at Penn State University found that it's possible to reduce calories without increasing hunger by eating more of these types of foods.
Mindful eating can help here, too. "Eat slowly, taste the food and become more in touch with what you are eating and how it tastes so you can enjoy it more and start to appreciate satisfaction with smaller portions," Moores says.
6. Giant-Size Packages
You'll find plenty of bargains on mega-sized packages at super-discount stores like Costco or Sam's. But unfortunately, experts say, these giant containers can affect us on an unconscious level and cause us to eat more. Researchers have found that when you eat from a large container, you are likely to consume 25% to 50% more than you would from a smaller package -- especially when you're eating snacks and sweets.
"First, try to get out of the habit of always eating something while you are sitting, relaxing, or watching television," says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Tara Gidus, MS, RD. "Try a cup of tea, glass of water, or chew a piece of sugarless gum. If you want a snack, portion it out of the bag or container or buy smaller packages like the 100-calorie snack packs."
7. Not-So-Dainty Dishware
Researchers have found that we tend to eat more when we're served from larger containers. Wansink and colleagues found that when students were given food in larger bowls, they served themselves 53% more and consumed 56% more than those who used smaller bowls.
When you use smaller bowls, plates, spoons, and cups, you won't feel deprived because the food will look more plentiful, Wansink says. Daintier dishware and smaller utensils can also help slow your eating.
8. Too Much Variety
A buffet restaurant can be a dieter's nightmare. Too many choices encourages having a taste (or more) of everything, and before you know it, your plate runneth over. "Too much variety on your plate at one meal can often mean too much food overall," says Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, director of nutrition at Washington University and past president of the American Dietetic Association.
So use variety to help meet your nutritional needs, but concentrate on the right foods. Eating a variety of foods is great, as long as the foods are low in calories and rich in nutrients -- like fruits, beans, vegetables, broth soups, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.