8 Sneaky Things That Could Be Making You Fat

Cues in your environment can trigger overeating, experts say.

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

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 overeating triggers, 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 Susan Moores, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.

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 trigger 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 unknowingly putting hand to mouth, usually from a big bag or bowl while sitting in front of the television, reading a book, checking emails, or during happy hour. 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 understand how much they should eat," Moores says.

To understand what a portion should look lie, pull out the measuring cups and see how your portions stack up against the standards from the U.S. government's mypyramid.com 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, 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.