Nutritionists and scientists have long tried to unlock the secrets of overeating. But some of the best information is coming from an unexpected source: marketing experts! It turns out that even the most self-aware individuals are subject to mindless eating.

Most of the research comes from a marketing professor, Dr Brian Wansink, from Stanford University. He wrote a book called Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.

Beware!

* Size matters

In one study, two groups of people were given free, but stale (five-days old) popcorn while watching a movie. Half of the group got a medium-sized tub; the other got a large tub. The people with the larger tubs ate 53 percent more than those with the medium tubs. They ate the popcorn regardless of taste (five-day-old movie popcorn? YUK!); but because it was there, they were distracted by the movie, and the bigger the tub, the bigger the calorie intake.

* Beware of the odor trap

Certain smells can induce us to eat more. Food companies can infuse their packaging with various smells to take advantage of this (and you). Another study done by Wansink treated 24 people to a free breakfast one morning a week for three weeks. Everyone had plain oatmeal out of three different bowls each week. The first week they ate from a regular bowl. The second they ate from a plastic bowl infused with cinnamon and raisin smells and the third week they ate from a bowl infused with macaroni and cheese smell. People ate the most from the cinnamon and raisin infused bowls, and they ate the least from the macaroni and cheese smell infused bowls. The oatmeal tasted the same out of all the bowls. However, the cinnamon and raisin smell enticed them and the macaroni and cheese smell caused cognitive confusion.

* People use visual clues to stop eating

In another study, Dr. Wansink rigged a soup bowl to continuously fill with tomato soup, essentially making it bottomless. The eaters with the rigged soup bowls ate on average six ounces more soup than those with a regular bowl. This means reinforces the theory that most people ignore how full they feel and eat until they clean their plates.

• Our eating is influenced by color

People will eat more M&M’s when they are multicolored than when they are all one color. People also eat more in a yellow or red room (think about the colors at McDonald’s), and eat less in a blue room.

• We are Influenced by those who eat around us

People are more likely to eat faster (and larger amounts) if those around them are shoveling food into their mouths.

• Sound and distraction matters

Playing fast music while eating will cause you to eat more. And every parent knows that kids (and adults) eat more when in front of a TV or computer screen.

Some Tips to Help You Avoid Overeating

• Eat slowly (or pick a slow eater to sit next to at the next dinner party). It takes 10 to 20 minutes for your brain to register that your gut is full.

• Use smaller bowls and plates. Since we all have a tendency to clean our plates and bowls, start small and use smaller utensils as well.

• Never eat directly from the box or bag (think cookies, and chips). You can’t see how much you’re eating, which means you won’t remember how many calories you’re consuming, and the visual clues you often depend on are obscured.   Another reason not to eat from packaging is to avoid odor-infused bowls and wrappers that can cause you to eat more (think apple pie).

• Beware of buffets. Studies have shown that people tend to overeat to try to make sure they get their money’s worth, and because they are often surrounded by others who are also overeating. If you must to, then use a small plate and only put two items on the plate at a time.

• Be aware of your surroundings. Always sit down to eat and try not to eat in front of the TV or computer. When you choose restaurants, gravitate toward the quiet ones that are painted blue!

Mindless eating contributes to the gradual weight gain many of us experience as we age. By being aware of some of the cues which trigger overeating, you can turn gradual weight gain into weight loss!