Brain: Playing with Your Food

Marcus Lillkvist stared at his plate in shock. "I'd read about these American portion sizes," he said in disbelief. "That's not a burrito—it's a log." Lillkvist, a Swede on his first trip to the U.S., then did a very un—American thing: He put down his fork and pronounced himself satiated.

A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that our food consumption has increased by 500 calories per day. Partly, that's a side effect of plenty: Confronted by giant bags of popcorn, groaning buffet tables or easy-to-reach cookie jars, we readily overindulge. Brian Wansink, director of the University of Illinois' Food and Brand Laboratory, has found many factors that fake us into overeating.

People who drink from short, fat glasses drink twice as much as those who use tall, slender glasses—even when the glasses hold the same volume.

Do you live for Chocolate Fudge Death by Decadence Torte? People rate desserts with dramatic names higher than simple "chocolate cake," even if the two are identical.

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Putting food out of reach can ease temptation, but mindfulness is still in order. In offices with Hershey's Kisses, workers who had to get out of their chairs to reach the candy bowl made fewer trips for treats. But they didn't realize that once at the candy bowl, they tended to grab two or three Kisses, rather than just one.

Wansink gave people bowls of jelly beans with either four or six different colors—all of which tasted the same. People with only four "flavors" to choose from ate 40 percent less than those with six options.

When multiple flavors of jelly beans were served in a single bowl, the illusion of greater diversity caused people to eat nearly twice as many as when the same beans were served in separate bowls.

Most people are still gaining about a pound or two per year—the equivalent of a mere 10 or 20 calories per day. One solution is to make dramatic lifestyle changes in an effort to lose weight. "But another approach would be to modify your personal environment in a way that makes eating decisions brainless," says Wansink, who has thrown away all of his short, fat drinking glasses. "Let your environment work for you, rather than against you. These studies show that small factors make a big difference," he says.

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