Anyone who’s been to an all-you-can-eat buffet (or college cafeteria…) knows: Limitless food supplies inspire us to put far more on our plates than we need to. (They also make us crave and consume things we never wanted in the first place.)Environmental factors that increase the food intake and consumption volume of unknowing consumers.Wansink, B. Department of Marketing and Nutritional Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Annual Review of Nutrition, 2004;24:455-79.Internal and external moderators of the effect of variety on food intake. Remick, A.K., Polivy, J., Pliner, P. Department of Psychology, University of Toronto Mississauga. Psychological Bulletin, 2009 May;135(3):434-51.Eating as an automatic behavior. Cohen, D., Farley, T.A. RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, California. Preventing Chronic Disease, 2008 Jan;5(1):A23. Does this mean we’re all bound to binge? Not if we utilize these strategies to combat calorie overload. Below are 16 tricks to curtail excess om-nomming.

Photo by Lisa Goulet

Map it Out — Your Action Plan

1. Double Down. Use smaller plates and glassesto avoid taking in too much. Not only do big cups, bowls, and plates hold more food and liquid to begin with, but oversized dinnnerware also makes normal portion sizes seem smaller than they actually are. Finishing a full plate makes us feel full. The larger the plate, the more we’ll need to eat before that visual cue gets to our brains.

2. Cue cards. The sheer awareness of abundance prompts us to eat more. So entering an unlimited buffet or cafeteria already sets us up for bingey behavior. To resist the environmental set up, portion out single servings in advance.

3. Log. Keeping track of what we put in our mouths helps keep us aware of how much we’re eating (so we’re more likely to know when to stop)Weight loss during the intensive intervention phase of the weight-loss maintenance trial. Hollis, J.F., Gullion, C.M., Stevens, V.J., et al. Center for Health Research, Kaiser Permanente Northwest, Portland, Oregon. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 2008 Aug;35(2):118-26.. By jotting down some thoughts and feelings about our food intake, we can also write away some food-related stress — and reducing stress can help keep impulsivity in check and hunger-promoting hormone levels downStress may add bite to appetite in women: a laboratory study of stress-induced cortisol and eating behavior. Epel, E., Lapidus, R., McEwen, B., et al. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 2001 Jan;26(1):37-49. UCSF Health Psychology Program, San Francisco, CA.

4. Hit it and quit it. As soon as you load up at the food bar, nab a seat as far away from it as you can. Studies show that the more distance there is between you and a stockpile of edibles, the less likely you are to get up for seconds, or crave more. (The mere awareness of a food being within our midst makes us want to eat it, even if we’re already full.) If it’s not possible to steer clear of more food, try positioning yourself closer to the salad bar than the dessert trays, since we tend to consume more of whatever’s conveniently within reachThe office candy dish: proximity’s influence on estimated and actual consumption. Wansink, B., Painter, J.E., Lee, Y.K. Cornell Food and Brand Laboratory, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY. International Journal of Obesity, 2006 May;30(5):871-5.How visibility and convenience influence candy consumption. Painter, J.E., Wansink, B. Hieggelke, J.B. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Appetite, 2002 Jun;38(3):237-8.. At the very least, face away from the buffet — one study shows this also aids in curbing excess consumptionEating behavior and obesity at Chinese buffets. Wansink, B., Payne, C.R. Department of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Obesity, 2008 Aug;16(8):1957-60..

5. Pay attention! Keep an eye on your plate to track how much you’ve taken in. Visual cues make more of an impact on our hunger/fullness levels than, well, actual fullness. Themore food we see we’ve eaten, the sooner we’ll realize we’ve had enough.

6. Socialize strategically. Surround yourself with people who eat healthy. Studies show we readily pick up on our family’s and friends’ eating behaviors. So nibble next to pals with more colorful plates for optimal inspiration in the dining hallAn actor-based model of social network influence on adolescent body size, screen time, and playing sports. Shoham, D.A., Tong, L., Lamberson, P.J., et al. Department of Preventive Medicine & Epidemiology, Loyola University Chicago, Maywood, Illinois. PLoS One, 2012;7(6):e39795.The spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. Christakis, N.A., Fowler, J.H. Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, MA. New England Journal of Medicine, 2007 Jul 26;357(4):370-9.Peer effects in adolescent overweight. Trogdon, J.D., Nonnemaker, J., Pais, J. RTI International, Research Triangle Park, NC. Journal of Health Economics. 2008 Sep;27(5):1388-99.Weight gain in adolescents and their peers. Halliday, T.J., Kwak, S. University of Hawaii Manoa, Honolulu, HI Economics and Human Biology, 2009 2009 Jul;7(2):181-90.Longitudinal analysis of large social networks: estimating the effect of health traits on changes in friendship ties. O’Malley, A.J., Christakis, N.A. Department of Health Care Policy, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts. Statistics in medicine, 2011 Apr 30;30(9):950-64..

7. Slow down. Taking your time during a meal makes you feel fuller, faster. “Signals for feeding are sluggish in terms of influencing the brain, so they’re easy to ignore,” says neuroscientist Gary Wenk, author of This Is Your Brain On Food. It can take upwards of 30 minutes for stop signals to register. Pace yourself by savoring each bite, chewing thoroughly, and using a knife and fork (or chopsticks, if you can)Eating slowly increases the postprandial response of the anorexigenic gut hormones, peptide YY and glucagon-like peptide-1. Kokkinos, A., le Roux, C.W., Alexiadou, K., et al First Department of Propaedeutic Medicine, Athens University Medical School, Laiko General Hospital, Athens. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism, 2010 Jan;95(1):333-7.Eating slowly led to decreases in energy intake within meals in healthy women. Andrade, A.M., Greene, G.W., Melanson, K.J. Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences, University of Rhode Island, Kingston. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2008 Jul;108(7):1186-91.The joint impact on being overweight of self reported behaviours of eating quickly and eating until full: cross sectional survey. Maruyama, K., Sato, S., Ohira, T., et al. Department of Social and Environmental Medicine, Graduate School of Medicine, Osaka University, Yamadaoka. BMJ, 2008 Oct 21;337:a2002..

8. Stay Warm. Dining in colder atmospheres makes us eat more. Bring a sweater — or Snuggie — to the dining hall!

9. Cash In. If you pay item per item, use cash — not a credit or meal plan card — to pay. Plastic payment methods, studies show, weaken our impulse control. In the absence of immediate consequences (i.e. actually watching the cash leave your hand) we indulge more.

10. Tray Bien! Without a tray to pile plates on, we feel more restricted, explains Cornell University food psychologist David Just: “The more restricted you feel in the amount of food you can take in, the more likely you’ll be to grab the one or two items you really want — which tend to be the dessert items and main dishes, rather than the side salads or extra veggies.” Trays also give us the space to notice whether we’re missing any greens or other good stuff to balance out a meal.

11. Survey The Area. A full walk around the cafeteria to look at all the options may sound overwhelming at first. But, says Just, “knowing what all the offerings are enables you to make decisions based on what you’d like as well as what you should make room for on your plate.” Otherwise, we’re tempted to return to the buffet multiple times to make sure we didn’t miss anything.

12. Hold On. Sneaky waiters who swiftly exchange finished plates for desert menus are onto something. Without lingering evidence of how much we’ve consumed, we tend to forget. Same goes for discarding plate one, two, or three as you grab a dessert bowl and head back for the finale. Just recommends keeping all plates, bowls, and cups used throughout a meal right on the table as reminders of how much we’ve consumed.

13. Gum. Before you head back for seconds, try sticking a wad of sugar-free gum in your mouth. This can help sate that need to keep on noshing even after our stomachs are crying for help. Some studies even suggest munching on gum burns a few extra calories. (Not bad!)

14. Pre-Game.Eat a low-cal but filling fruit or veggie serving prior to hitting the dining hall. One study found that participants who snacked on a skinned apple before sitting for larger meals ate an average of 187 calories less than those who ate nothing at allThe effect of fruit in different forms on energy intake and satiety at a meal. Flood-Obbagy, J.E., Rolls, B.J. Department of Nutritional Sciences, The Pennsylvania State University, 226 Henderson Building, University Park. Appetite, 2009 Apr;52(2):416-22.. (Pro tip: juice and smoother foods, like applesauce, don’t achieve the same effect since liquid leaves us less full. So stick to less processed edibles.)Also: Hunger depletes our willpower, so a pre-dining hall snack could help you control your impulse to hit the dessert table firstSelf-control relies on glucose as a limited energy source: willpower is more than a metaphor. Gailliot, M.T., Baumeister, R.F., DeWall, C.N., et al. Department of Psychology, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2007 Feb;92(2):325-36..

15. Picture This. Imagine your favorite buffet item while you’re walking to the dining hall. Picture eating it, bite by bite, in entirety. “When we visualize consuming a food we crave before we start eating it,” says Wenk, “we end up consuming less of it.” Likely, he adds, because this tricks our brains into getting habituated to (read: bored by) a foodThought for food: imagined consumption reduces actual consumption. Morewedge, C.K., Huh, Y.E., Vosgerau, J. Department of Social and Decision Sciences, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh. Science, 2010 Dec 10;330(6010):1530-3..

16. Gotta Jet! Committing to some type of physical activity directly after a meal reduces how much food we stuff in our bellies, says Just. We’re less likely to ask for seconds when we anticipate a food coma getting in the way of post-cafeteria plans — like lugging heavy groceries, speed-walking across campus to class, or making a volleyball practice in time for warm up.

The Takeaway

Buffets, cafeterias, and lunchrooms of all sorts set us up for nutritional shame walks. But pay close enough attention to plate size, progress on a meal, and the people around you, and you just might find yourself stopping before going overboard on the plates.

What are your favorite tips for keeping eating in control? Tell us in the comments below!