Behind the healthy eating buzz is a bevvy of tricks designed to make you blow your best intentions. Charmaine Yabsley explores the sneaky art of supersizing you

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Have you ever wondered why the moment you go to a restaurant, or sit down with friends, your good food intentions fly out the window?

 

It’s not just your lack of willpower — those crafty food creators actually use sneaky tricks to make sure we eat more, stay longer and sometimes, even convince us that the fattening pasta dish was healthy, because it was served with a green salad.


“The way in which food is presented can make you think that there is more, or less, calories than there really is,” says Dr Jing Lei, senior lecturer in marketing at the University of Melbourne.

 

“If you order a chocolate cake which is topped with fresh fruit, then you’ll think it’s a healthier, lower-calorie meal than if it was served without the topping.”


According to research, the types of toppings can influence people’s choice of foods. “Many people don’t know how many calories are in the foods they eat, so if there is fruit or salad added to the side of an unhealthy dish, we convince ourselves that we’ve eaten a healthy meal,” Dr Lei says.

Could we see a menu?

Take a look at your menu the next time you’re in a restaurant or fast food outlet. “Most of the time there’ll be a lot of unhealthy options and only a few healthy ones,” says Dr Lei.

 

“The healthy options tend to be the padding of the menu, not the crux of it. Yet, if there’s an equal offering of so-called healthy and unhealthy foods, then people may choose healthy foods. The menu has created an internal tension that led you to make the best choice for your health.”

The takeaway

Ask to see the nutrition flyer. Australia hasn’t yet followed the US’ lead with calorie counts on wall menus, but many fast food restaurants do keep a pamphlet on their healthy meal options out of view. McDonald’s publishes this information on its website, so if all else fails, grab your iPhone.

The art of upsizing


It seems that when it comes to ordering your food, size does matter. “Some restaurants have extra large size options, in addition to small, medium and large,” says Dr Lei. “For example, people may be 35 per cent more likely to choose the large, when there’s four sizes to choose from. However, if there are just three choices, of small, medium and large, 20 per cent of consumers will choose medium.”

The takeaway


Always order small and it will become automatic, no matter how many options there are.

My, how you’ve grown

It’s not just the size options that affect our overall intake. Plates seem to have grown over the past few years, which has had a knock-on effect to our weight. In a study by Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, those who were given larger bowls served themselves and consumed 16 per cent more cereal than those who were eating out of smaller bowls.

The takeaway

Ideally, use a standard size plate and bowl and, if you’re watching your weight, choose a smaller bowl and fill it up to give the impression of indulgence. Better yet, invest in a portion plate.

With friends like these


A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that when eating out with a friend, you tend to match their calorie intake. So if your friend is a skinny minny who never puts on weight, yet eats three pizzas in one sitting, you’ll be more likely to overindulge too. On the other hand, if your friend is dieting, or health-conscious, you’ll follow when it comes to your lunch or dinner order.


On the plus side, if your dining companion is overweight, you’ll eat less. “If a heavy-set colleague eats a lot, you are likely to adjust your behavior and eat less. But a thin friend who eats a lot may lead you to eat more than you normally would,” say the study’s researchers. Having a ‘friendly lunch’ can be filled with dietary pitfalls. “You talk longer, so you don’t notice that you’re full; if your friend isn’t dieting, then you’ll both choose extra foods.”

The takeaway


Dine with the friend who is on a diet and you won’t eat as much, as you’ll naturally mimic their eating behaviour.

Is this song making you fat?


Ever wondered why some cafes, restaurants or fast food outlets pipe music through the speakers? It’s not just to create an enjoyable ambience, it’s to encourage you to eat more.

 

A study conducted by the Department of Psychology at Georgia State University in Atlanta found that the presence of music is associated with higher food intake. Whether it’s classical, rap or the Top 40, its mere presence is enough to encourage you to relax, linger over your meal, and eat more.


The takeaway


Other than wearing earplugs, sit as far away from the speakers as possible, or if there’s an outdoor section, sit there. (Of course you could just prepare a healthy meal at home.)

Home, healthy home


Luckily, many of the environmental factors that affect our eating choices when we’re dining out do not tend to extend to our homes. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that we tend to make smarter and low-calorie choices at home.

 

“The home is a privileged environment that nurtures healthy eating and in which healthier food choices trigger and are triggered by more positive emotions,” the report concluded. This pattern may help explain why people make better choices at home than when eating out, says Professor Dubé, senior author of the study and scientific director of the McGill World Platform for Health and Economic Convergence.

 

What the chef says


How can you eat out, enjoy your food, and not break your diet? According to Season’s (Peppers Resort, Kingscliff) executive chef, Reuben Radonich, it’s all about being prepared before you leave. “Speaking to the chef about your food choice is a good place to start. When people come to a restaurant they tend to order choices they’re familiar and comfortable with, even if they wouldn’t cook these foods at home,” Radonich says.

 

And there’s no need to worry about the excess calories, either. “In the past, restaurants were guilty of overloading plates with starch. Nowadays, the main ingredient on a plate is protein, with smaller servings of starch such as potatoes, and larger servings of veg or salad.

 

If you’re watching your weight, then ask your chef to remove the carbs and replace with a suitable accompaniment.” Another top tip is to avoid ordering from every course. “Order two entrée-sized meals instead, or share you entrée and dessert with your dining companion,” Radonich advises.

 

“The bill, and your calorie intake, will be lighter.” And the last word on those super-sized plates? “Large white plates are the perfect canvas for food – any other colour wouldn’t complement the dish. And large plates help diners feel that they’re eating smaller portions – by leaving a lot of space on the plate, people feel that they’re eating less. In truth, they usually are, as we tend to over-serve ourselves at home or at a buffet.”