How many times have you found it hard to stop eating a cheesy pizza, a decadent chocolate cake, or a salty bag of chips?
Overeating is easy to fall into and hard to stop, even when you’re aware of it.
But what happens when you’re not aware that you’re doing it?
Studies suggest that eating is an automatic behavior. Our food environment – not our self-control or will – play a major role in how much we eat.
Unfortunately, there are subtle cues in your daily environment that can contribute to overeating and cravings, and this can harm your health in the long-term.
Overweight and obesity result from our daily eating habits – not from food binges or overeating episodes.
This study shows that the obesity epidemic we’ve seen over the last two decades could be caused by a daily excess of 100-150 kcal.
That is the same as three Oreos or one can of Pepsi.
To help you understand and navigate your food environment a little better, here’s a list of 27 environmental, social, and internal cues and triggers that contribute to overeating and cravings – and how to deal with each one.
Being aware of the factors that encourage you to eat in excess can help you make better decisions.
Seemingly small details like colors, sounds, container sizes, and food variety can influence how much food you buy, serve, and eat.
1. Visible Snacks
Convenient and visible snacks trigger cravings and lead to overeating.
This study measured how many chocolate kisses participants would eat based on convenience. Out of 30 chocolates in the container, participants ate 8.6 when the container was on their desks (visible), 5.7 when the container was in their drawers (not visible), and only 3 when it was 2 meters away from the desk.
In this study, people ate 2.2 more candies per day when they were visible, and 1.8 candies more when they were placed on their desk vs 2 meters away.
Another study showed that people who were given sandwiches in transparent wrap ate more than those who were given sandwiches in opaque wraps.
This shows that you’re likely to eat more when food is within reach.
2. Meal Size
When you’re eating out or somebody else serves your food, you’re very likely to finish your meal even if the portion is larger than what you would normally eat.
This study showed that increasing a pasta entrée size at a restaurant by 50% increased the energy intake from the entrée by 43%. The people who ate it couldn’t tell there was a difference between the bigger or the regular entrée.
In this study, researchers gave movie-goers large and medium size containers with stale popcorn. The movie-goers who got the large containers ate 33.6% more popcorn even when they complained about the taste.
In this study, participants ate from normal and self-refilling bowls of soup. At the end of the meal, people eating from the self-refilling bowls at 73% more soup and they didn’t report feeling fuller or more satiated than people eating from normal bowls.
In a nutshell, it’s easy to overeat when you are served a large portion.
3. Food Package Size
Much like the portion sizes at restaurants, the package sizes of the food you buy at the supermarket can trick you into overeating.
Many snacks and cereals are not sold in individual portions, which makes easy to overeat.
Family size chips, jumbo marshmallows, and bundles of cookies on discount are good examples.
In this study, participants reported feeling a lack of self-control when eating from large packages.
According to the study,
Specifically, larger pack sizes (e.g. kingsize and share packs) generally increased consumption, as it was particularly difficult for participants to “close up the pack” and “resist temptation”. Additionally, single householders felt that a wide range of product packs were often designed for two people, and, in a similar way, also prompted them to overeat
4. Plate Size
Subconsciously, we tend to serve until the food looks proportional to our plate, regardless of how much food we actually need.
This means we serve more food on large plates and less on smaller plates.
This behavior is attributed to the Delboeuf Illusion, which is a perceived difference in the size of two identical circles when one is surrounded by a larger circle and the other is surrounded by a smaller circle – much like your plate and your food.
The same amount of food can seem smaller in a large plate, and larger in a small plate.
Therefore, the larger your plate, the more you are likely to eat.
5. Color Contrast Between Food And Plate
Research shows that a low color contrast between the food and your plate can make you serve more food, while a high color contrast helps you serve more accurate portions.
In the study, red sauce pasta on a red plate (low contrast) increased overserving, but red sauce pasta on a white plate (high contrast) reduced overserving.
When there’s a low contrast between your food and your plate, it’s hard to measure how much you’re actually serving.
6. Color Contrast Between Plate and Tablecloth
The contrast between your plate and tablecloth also counts.
In this case, a high contrast can make you serve more than you need, while a low contrast helps you serve less.
The same study showed that a white plate on a dark tablecloth (high contrast) increased overserving, while a white plate on a white tablecloth (low contrast) reduced overserving.
7. Glass Size
A wide glass can trick you into pouring more juice and wine without realizing it.
In this study, adults who were given short and wide juice glasses poured and drank 19.4% more juice than those given tall, slender glasses.
A different study shows that 3 things can increase the amount of wine your pour: the size of your glass, the color of the wine, and how you hold the glass.
Participants poured 12% more into a wider glass, 9.2% more when it was white wine (because of the low contrast), and 12.2% more when they were holding the glass in their hand instead of setting it on the table.
Narrow and tall glasses can help you pour and drink less.
8. Lack Of Clarity About Food Portions
The serving sizes in packaged foods are usually given in grams or ounces, which can be confusing and hard to remember for consumers when it’s time to eat them, according to research.
In this study, participants reported it was difficult to find portion guidance that could be easily remembered and applied.
According to the study:
Specifically, the majority of participants acknowledged that household measurements were open to interpretation (e.g. “a glass could be a shot glass or pint glass”), and, they poorly recognised the actual quantity of servings specified in imperial (e.g. 2oz cheese) and metric measurements (e.g. 56g cheese)
This lack of clarity also makes it unpractical when you’re serving. How many times have you stopped to measure the exact amount of granola or milk you’re eating for breakfast?
9. Buying In Bulk
Buying foods in bulk is not a good idea if you want to avoid overeating.
In this framework, the authors conducted 4 studies to find out how buying in bulk affects consumption. They concluded this:
- Participants consumed 110% more fruit juice and 92% more cookies per day after buying promotional packs.
- Stockpiling increases consumption only for high-convenience products, like packaged foods.
- Stockpiled foods are more eye-catching than other foods.
- When there are several foods in bulk, the products that are ready to eat are preferred over products that require preparation.
This shows that buying in bulk can make you eat more food than you normally would.
10. Food Variety
High food variety (real and perceived) increases food consumption.
This review found that increasing the variety of one food (e.g. different gelatin flavors) can make you eat more of it.
Participants in a study ate 23% more yogurt when offered three different flavors than when offered only one flavor.
This framework shows that the way you organize food affects your perception of variety.
Increasing variety from six to 24 jelly beans made participants eat 222% more when the jelly beans were organized by color, but it didn’t affect consumption when the jelly beans were disorganized.
This means we tend to eat more when we have more options to choose from – and when those options are visually appealing.
It’s a good idea to keep snacks disorganized (to decrease consumption) and keep fruits and veggies organized (to increase consumption).
11. Food Ads
Seeing foods you find tasty (e.g. fries and shakes) triggers your cravings, even when it’s only pictures or videos of those foods, a recent study found.
In this study, children and adults ate markedly more snacks after being exposed to television food advertising.
Clearly, there are far more ads for junk and processed food than for healthier products.
This is because you only crave the foods your brain associates with reward and pleasure, and that tends to be foods high in sugar, salt, and fat, according to research.
This study found that a higher food reward perception is associated with a higher consumption of sweet and salty snacks, foods made with cheese, sodas, and fish, but isn’t associated with a higher consumption of fruit or juice, green or orange vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, or seeds.
12. Strategic Food Display At Supermarkets
Supermarkets strategically position their stock to encourage you to buy more high-profit products (often processed foods).
Shelves are arranged so profitable products like brand-name cereals, juices, oils, and cookies will catch your eye. You’ve probably noticed how their generic counterparts are harder to spot.
This study shows that sales increase by 40% when the shelf space for a certain item is doubled.
Placing products at eye level and creating end-aisle displays also increase sales, according to research.
This strategic display can trick into buying more than you actually need.
13. Music and Lighting At Restaurants
The music and lighting at a restaurant can affect how long and how much you eat.
This study found that bright lights and loud music (like in a fast food restaurant) can make you overeat and feel less satisfied with your food, while softer music and lights can encourage you to eat less.
People in a restaurant setting with dim lights and soft music ate less, ate more slowly, stayed longer, and reported enjoying their meals more in comparison to people eating in a colorful and loud room.
The calmer your environment is, the slower you will eat, which can help you feel satisfied with less food.
14. Colors and Smells At Restaurants
Fast food restaurants use tactics to attract customers that can trigger hunger and cravings without you noticing.
Some restaurants use “smell marketing” to open your appetite. For example, Cinnabon places their ovens in front of the store so the smell will attract customers and make people linger.
The colors in restaurants also influence food consumption.
This study found that the color red increases appetite, while yellow catches people’s attention and encourages hunger. You may have noticed that both colors are often used in logos, furniture, and buildings of fast food chains.
15. Long Commutes
The Royal Society for Public Health released a new study that found long commutes can add 800 extra calories per week while commuting.
The study showed long commutes increased snacking by 33% and fast food consumption by 29%. The average commuting time in the UK is 56 minutes.
This increase is triggered by stress, easy access to fast-food joints, and passive commutes that create boredom.
A different study in fourth and fifth graders found that passive commuters ate 78 more calories per day than active commuters (390 extra calories per school week).
16. The Order Of Food At Buffets
It’s easy to go overboard with your meals at buffets.
This study found that the first 3 foods people see at a buffet end up making 66% of their meal. Serving the unhealthier foods first made participants take 31% more total food.
This means that the order in which you serve matters.
You can eat healthier (yes, even at a buffet) if you simply serve the healthier foods first.
This way you will reduce the total portion of unhealthy foods (without even noticing).
Your social environment plays an important role on how much you eat.
17. Eating In Large Groups Of People
We consume more food when we eat in large groups of people.
This study found that people can eat 28% more when they eat with another person, 72% more in groups of six, and up to 96% more in groups of seven or more.
Another study found that meals are larger and longer when you eat with others, especially with your family, because people are more relaxed and food monitoring becomes less important.
This study shows that in some circumstances people feel pressured to eat more to impress friends. Men and women reported feeling the need to eat more to fit in with the group.
18. What Your Peers Eat
Subconsciously, we tend to eat as much as the people around us.
In this study, people kept trying to eat as much as their peers without being aware of it.
This happened even when the participants ate by themselves: After the participants were told how much other people had eaten before them, they ate a similar amount when they were alone.
A different study showed that when people had to choose between two types of crackers (goldfish or animal crackers), they picked the same crackers as the person they were speaking to, without being aware they were copying the other person.
This subconscious pattern can make you overeat if your peers are eating large portions or unhealthy food.
The environmental and social cues to overeat have more power when there are internal triggers pushing us to eat.
19. Low Effort To Get Food
Eating has been considered an “automatic” behavior.
This review concludes that how much you eat depends directly on how much effort it takes you to eat it.
The less effort it takes, the more you eat.
According to the review,
These studies also demonstrate that the natural trajectory of eating — that is, what takes place without conscious effort — is for it to continue. Effort is not required to continue eating when food is present; effort is required to refrain from eating when food is present. […] But the amount of effort required to refrain from eating when food is present is substantial, and it is nearly impossible to sustain over the long term.
The reason for this behavior is survival.
Because a central evolutionary task of human beings has been to consume enough energy to live, it is not surprising that we are programmed to eat whenever food is within reach.
That’s why it’s hard to stop eating when we serve large portions, buy large packages, or have snacks in sight.
Being aware of this tendency can help you engineer your environment to prevent overeating.
It’s important not to blame yourself for this inclination.
Stress plays a big role in hunger and cravings.
This study found that both perceived and objective stress increases hunger, food disinhibition, binge eating, and cravings for unhealthy foods.
Higher levels of stress correspond to higher levels of hunger.
A different study showed that stress is associated with an increased risk of obesity in women.
Boredom can make you turn your attention towards food.
In this study, authors investigated the link between boredom and food intake, and this is what they found:
- Boredom increases the consumption of carbs, fat, and protein, in that order.
- Boring tasks can increase your desire to snack on unhealthy foods.
- Boring tasks can increase the desire for both unhealthy and “exciting” healthy foods in people with high self-awareness.
The study concluded that food is used as a way to escape the self-awareness that comes from boring activities, and people with high-self awareness can experience more cravings as a result.
22. Negative Attitudes Towards Food
Our relationship with food plays a major role in our health and happiness.
One study found that associating food with pleasure instead of worry or guilt can improve your overall health.
The study concluded that when it comes to food, the French are the most pleasure-oriented (and least health-oriented) group, while Americans are the most health-oriented (and least pleasure-oriented) group. Ironically, Americans are less likely to classify themselves as healthy eaters.
To focus only on health – and not pleasure – divides foods into “right”(healthy) and “wrong”(unhealthy) camps. This division can trigger guilt and worry after eating unhealthy foods.
The guilt and shame associated with food can sabotage your efforts to eat healthier.
A study showed that people who associated chocolate cake with guilt reported feeling less in control of their eating habits and were less successful at losing weight over an 18-month period in comparison to people who associated chocolate cake with pleasure.
A follow-up study confirmed that associating food with guilt can create feelings of helplessness and lack of control. In the study, people who associated chocolate cake with guilt reported unhealthier eating habits.
If you want to be healthier and happier, don’t eat with guilt or shame.
Enjoy your food, even when it’s not-so-healthy.
23. Distracted Eating
Distractions make it difficult to monitor how much you’re eating.
This study showed that women ate less when they paid attention to internal signals of satiety and ate more when they watched tv.
In this study, people who ate while listening to a detective story ate a bigger meal than people who ate in silence or while paying attention to their food.
This study showed that movie-goers who rated popcorn as unfavorable ate 61% more when given a large container, and people who rated popcorn as favorable ate 49% more when given a bigger container.
In summary, eating while doing other activities can lead to overeating.
24. Childhood Eating Habits
The eating habits you had as a child affect the way you eat as an adult.
In this study, people reported eating according to how much their parents made them eat as children.
Many reported being served large portions and encouraged to finish all the food on their plate through bribery or manipulation even when they were not hungry.
It’s common for parents to try to make children eat more than they should.
In this study, 85% of parents encouraged their children to eat more, and 83% of children ended up eating more than they would have without parental pressure.
This review found that serving large food portions to kids can affect their eating behaviors and weight.
Excessive control over a child’s diet can also create unhealthy eating habits.
In this study, pressuring children to eat more fruits and veggies made them even more resistant. However, when parents ate vegetables and fruits themselves, children showed interest towards it.
This study showed that restricting kids from eating unhealthy foods can increase the cravings and consumption of those same foods when they are available.
If you tended to overeat as a child, it’s more likely you’ll overeat as an adult.
25. Arbitrary Portion Control
A recent study discovered that people are more likely to overeat when food is labeled “healthy” as opposed to unhealthy.
Research showed that consumers ate larger portions of “healthier” foods because they associated “healthy” with “less filling”. Even participants who didn’t think healthy foods were less filling still ate more without realizing.
A different study found that participants worried about controlling portions of unhealthy foods, but not of foods they consider healthy. Chicken, potatoes, cereals, and fruits were considered healthy and therefore not necessary to control. Only foods like cakes, biscuits, and ice-cream were controlled.
This arbitrary portion control can lead to overeating.
It’s important to remember that not all foods labeled as “healthy” are actually healthy – organic chips are not better for you than regular chips.
26. Following A Low-Fat Diet
A low-fat diet can increase your cravings and leave you less satisfied than a low-carbohydrate diet.
This study showed that people on a low-carb diet for two years had less cravings for high-carb and high-sugar foods and reported less hunger than people on a low-fat diet.
If you want to curb cravings for sweets and feel more satisfied, don’t eat low fat.
Fatty foods like avocado, nuts, coconut milk, and olive oil can make you feel fuller and improve your health.
27. Rigid Food Restrictions
Ironically, hard restrictions on food can encourage binge-eating.
This study found that deprivation of specific foods can increase the consumption of those foods when they’re available. In the study, chocolate-deprived participants ate more chocolate and had more cravings than unrestrained participants.
Another study measured the food intake of restrained and unrestrained people before going on a diet. In the group that anticipated a diet, the restrained eaters actually ate more food than the unrestrained eaters and the participants who weren’t going on the diet.
This shows that just the anticipation of a diet restriction can urge you to binge-eat.
Restrictions can also increase the number of thoughts you have about the “forbidden” foods, according to research.
Flexible restrictions can be a more beneficial and realistic way to control your portions.