Why We Eat More

You haven’t gotten hungrier – the world of food has just gotten larger and harder to ignore. Recognize the signs and you’ll be one step closer to weight-loss success.
Woman in supermarket

Losing weight should be easier now than ever before, right? We can calculate calories on our smartphones, find an endless supply of healthy recipes online and order fat-free, low-carb snacks with the click of a mouse. But instead of eating less and slimming down, we’re actually eating more: The USDA estimates that the average American takes in 2,700 calories a day, an increase of 25 percent since 1970!

But don’t blame the extra intake on supersized 21st-century hunger pangs, says Brian Wansink, PhD, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Outside influences, like the size of the spaghetti box, the constant barrage of food images and even government policies, are making us all forget when we’re full and what’s a normal portion. The best way to outsmart all these sneaky influences? To understand exactly what they are.

Junk food keeps getting cheaper
While food is one of the few household expenses that’s actually become more affordable in the last few decades, it’s not lean proteins and organic veggies that have plummeted the most in price — it’s the sugary, fatty, processed stuff. “Because of government subsidies, the price of corn, wheat and rice is artificially low, so it’s very inexpensive to produce high-calorie, low-nutrient snacks such as crackers and cookies, and foods made with high-fructose corn syrup, such as soft drinks and breakfast cereals,” explains Carol Byrd-Bedbrenner, PhD, a professor of nutrition at Rutgers University.

Plus, food is everywhere you look
Remember when bookstores just sold books? Now you can’t buy a novel without also being tempted by peppermint mochas and Oreo cheesecakes. “You used to have to go to a supermarket to buy groceries, now you can find food in gas stations, discount stores, even at Staples,” says Wansink. Unfortunately for our waistlines, the food you’ll find while you’re buying a box of pencils isn’t whole grains and veggies — it’s more likely a tub of candy or a bag of chips.

Packages and portion sizes have ballooned
If that cookie looks like it’s three times the size of the ones you used to snack on as a kid, it probably is. A New York University study found that almost all packaged food sold today is two to five times the size it was in the 1970s, and some portions exceed USDA guidelines by as much as 700 percent! Even when we prepare our own food at home, portions sizes have grown. Wansink points out that the rise of warehouse clubs means that consumers are buying larger packages of foods; in a recent study, he found that when we cook from a double-sized box of spaghetti or a jar of sauce, the amount we eat increases by up to 25 percent.

Our plates and bowls are bigger, too
Did you ever notice how dainty your Grandma’s dishes seem? According to a recent study in the Journal of Consumer Research, dinner plates have been getting increasingly larger over the last century, evolving to the 11-inch slabs of china we’re accustomed to eating on now. And when the plate is bigger, portions get bigger to fill them up: Numerous studies have shown that the larger the plate or bowl, the more food we put on it.

We Want Our Food TV
Top Chef, Man vs. Food, Cupcake Wars: TV shows about cooking and eating are more popular than ever. But the more we watch, the hungrier we get. In a recent study, Wansink found that dieters gobbled down 43 percent more snacks while watching a food-related episode of TV show than while watching a non-food one. So if you’re going to turn on Iron Chef, put away the chips.

...But we don’t have time to actually cook
We may love to watch Rachael Ray whip up a casserole on TV, but that doesn’t mean we have time to do it ourselves. As the number of women in the work force has increased, the amount of time we have to slice, dice and sauté has decreased: In 1965, the average housewife spent over two hours per day cooking and cleaning up from meals. Today, for everyone, the average is about 33 minutes (that includes all three meals!). What does that mean? More take-out, fatty prepared foods and meals on the run.

We’re guilty of texting while tasting
Just a few years ago, we only had to worry about the TV or a rude salesperson interrupting us during dinner, but now there’s also the iPad, cell phone, Kindle and the entire season of Homeland on DVR. “Any time a screen is taking your attention away from your meal, you’re not going to pay attention to how much you’re putting on your plate, and you won’t notice signals that you’re full,” says Byrd-Bedbrenner.

There’s been a deluge of diet foods
It’s definitely a boon to those of us watching our weight that there are so many low-fat cheeses, low carb cookies and low-cal health bars available today, but too much of a healthy thing is, well, still too much, explains Wansink. In a recent study, overweight people ate 28 percent more candy when it was labeled “low-fat” than when it was labeled regular, which translates to in a greater overall intake of calories. “Also, we often reward ourselves later in the day for being a good boy or girl and eating the low-fat bar earlier,” Wansink adds.

There are just too many darn choices
Thirty years ago, there was just one kind of Snickers bar, and your coffee choice was regular or decaf. Today, Snickers come in dark chocolate, peanut butter and almond, and there are enough flavors of coffee to make your head spin. Good news, of course — especially if you love your half-caf, soy milk, crème brulee latte — but this constant range of new ways to tickle our taste buds means we always want more. In fact, one study found that when consumers were offered three different flavors of frozen yogurt, they ate 23 percent more than if they only had one choice.

Ultimately, the more you can manage your environment, the easier your weight-loss efforts will be. Not sure where to start? Head over to our Spaces tool for tips on how to stay in control no matter how big the plate, how available the food or how vast the choice really is.

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