Posted March 22, 2013, 10:59 am

Chinese restaurant buffet

All-you-can-eat buffets are a boon for hungry, thrift diners and a nightmare for dieters or those trying to maintain a healthy weight. If you are in the latter camp, here are two tips from Brian Wansink, the master of mindful eating:

  • Take a walk around the entire buffet to scope out your options before serving yourself.
  • Put your food on a small plate instead of a big one.

Wansink, professor of consumer behavior at Cornell University, and colleague Mitsuru Shimizu led a team of 30 trained observers to watch more than 300 men and women in two dozen all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant buffets and unobtrusively record six specific activities: how quickly the diners served themselves; choice of plate size; location of table; whether they faced the buffet; eating utensils used; and where they placed their napkin. Diners who surveyed the buffet before serving themselves and those who used smaller plates made fewer trips to the buffet, and so likely ate less.

“Consistent with the idea that small changes might lessen one’s tendency to overeat, deliberative thought about what to serve oneself, and using a smaller plate, may reduce overeating in buffets,” they write in the April 2013 American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

In an earlier study, the Cornell team showed that buffet diners with higher body-mass index (a measure of weight) tended to serve before surveying, used larger plates, sat facing the buffet, and used forks instead of chopsticks.

Behavior influences eating habits

Over the years, Wansink’s research has put a spotlight on how behavior and perception influence how much we eat. It’s important work.

“Many people aren’t aware of the multitude of factors that influence what and how much they eat,” says Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

When McManus and her team of dietitians advise people who are trying to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, they cover four behavioral “buckets.”

People. For some people, eating with friends, eating alone, and even watching other people eat prompts them to eat more. For others, eating alone is a problem.

Emotions. Feeling bored, sad, nervous, anxious, or depressed can spark overeating. So can being happy.

Danger zones. Movie theaters, grocery stores (especially those that circulate air from the bakery or kitchen into the store), and vending machine areas nudge some people to eat even when they aren’t hungry. For some, sitting in a comfy chair watching TV can be a dietary danger zone.

Activities. It goes without saying that parties and celebrations can lead to overeating. Preparing food can do the same thing, as can shopping in a supermarket (blame the bakery smell).

Once an individual is aware of how these factors can shape eating behavior, he or she can take steps to change or avoid them. That may be especially useful in an all-you-can-eat buffet, where part of the attraction is being able to eat as much as you want. In that environment, many people go on autopilot. “Mindless eating can take over,” says McManus. “Doing a little thing like looking at all your choices first can put you in better control.”