Bad Appetite

The social, psychological, and biological drivers of appetite.

Spoilt by Choice?

Why you always overeat at Thanksgiving dinner

Gobble Day is here. Are you preparing to roll up your sleeves and begin to consume a plate of turkey and stuffing so large that it would normally make you feel full just thinking about it? Or are you already lying on the sofa clutching your food baby and bitterly regretting that final slice of pumpkin pie?

Whichever it is, I hope you will take heart in the fact that you are not alone. The truth is that Thanksgiving dinner is structured in such a way that even the most bird-like eater is likely to overindulge. Let me tell you why.

First, it happens at a weird time, and eating outside your normal routine does all kinds of funny things to your appetite. To take a less-than-scientific example, today I am gearing up for a feast at my friends' apartment around 4.30pm. This is a bit on the early side for dinner and I want to make sure I'm good and hungry. I have therefore consumed a very light lunch, which, in truth, was probably a bit too light to really keep my hunger at bay. This means I will be ravenous by the time we eat and my dinner companions will have to wrestle me for access to the rutabagas. Alas! Even obesity scientists can't get it right every time.

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Second, alcohol is consumed. Alcohol disinhibits one's cognitive restraint and makes you do all kinds of things you wouldn't normally do. Like eat three slices of pie for dessert then go back for extra ice-cream. Hic.

Third, the Thanksgiving meal is generally consumed with friends and family, and, with the exception of binge eaters (who tend to eat more when alone), most people eat more in company. This might be due to the relaxing properties of socializing, but could also be explained by revised consumption norms.

But fourth, and most important of all, there is an inordinate amount of choice available at the typical Turkey Day feast, and there's mounting evidence that the more choice we have at a meal, the more we'll eat. The root of the problem is that when we offer so many choices (damn you, candied yams...) we override something called sensory-specific satiety.

So what can be done in the fight against Thanksgiving gluttony? Well if you're yet to overindulge, and you have a strong desire to reign yourself in, let me make these humble suggestions:

1) Eat a decent lunch beforehand - if you're not starving you may be less likely to overstuff yourself.

2) Go easy on the booze - you'll save calories and your post-TG Friday won't seem so Black.

3) Listen to your stomach and don't just eat because everyone else is. (Tip: if Auntie Mabel likes to get her glutton on, you may be better off sitting at the other end of the table next to Raymond, your annoyingly picky nephew.)

4) If you're really serious about limiting your intake, try accompanying your turkey and stuffing with just a few of the healthier side dishes, like the green beans and the sauerkraut (yum).

Already in a state of food coma? Or feeling like adopting all these tips would miss the point of the Thanksgiving holiday? In that case I suggest stuffing all my advice like so many breadcrumbs in a turkey, and going for a nice long walk on Friday instead. After all, one mere marathon and you will almost be calorie-neutral...

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

Susan Carnell, Ph.D., is a research psychologist at Johns Hopkins University, where she studies what drives some people toward obesity.

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