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Spring is both wedding season and the peak travel period for cruising to the Caribbean and the Bahamas, which could spell trouble if you’re trying tostay in shape, since nuptial and nautical celebrations often present dieters’ kryptonite: The buffet!
Studies show that all-you-can-eat spreads are practically designed to make you overeat. From the variety of food to how it’s presented, everything about those food free-for-alls beckons you to eat more. But though buffets play some nasty mind games to trick you into binging, there’s good news: You have the power to change the rules.
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We rounded up the research to uncover five ways the buffet messes with your head, along with the best strategies for ensuring that you leave those linen-clothed tables with your diet — and dignity — in tact.
Buffet Mind Game #1: The layout is designed to encourage bad choices.
A recent study from Cornell University run by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., found that the presentation of buffet food can dramatically influence the nutritional quality of your meal. In the study, 75 percent of diners loaded up on the first food they saw, and the first three foods on the buffet line comprised 66 percent of their total plate. And the mind game doesn’t end there — when the buffet started with the least healthy options, most diners took 31 percent more food overall.
Your Move: Turn the tables. Since you’re not in control of the layout of the buffet, the solution is to take a tour of the spread before you touch a pair of tongs. Another study conducted by Wansink at Cornell found that the lightest patrons browsed the buffet first, instead of serving themselves immediately. By scoping out all of the options, you can save room on your plate for what you really want and pass up the extra calories that you don’t really care about.
Buffet Mind Game #2: They tempt your taste buds.
We think of taste as a very subjective concept — You like bitter greens, while I prefer spicy buffalo sauces. But research shows that the strength of our taste buds, which ultimately influences food preferences, is genetically determined.
A study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition compared two groups of women based on the strength of their ability to taste bitter foods — “non-tasters” genetically lack the ability to taste the bitter taste marker 6-n-propylthiouracil, whereas “supertasters” can. The research showed that non-tasters prefer higher-fat over lower-fat foods, and the authors suggested that because non-tasters perceive less flavor intensity, they likely prefer the strong flavors found in high-fat, energy-dense foods. Unfortunately, at the buffet, this means that non-tasters eat 140 calories and 5 grams of fat more than the supertasters, according to the study.
Your Move: Turn up the flavor. While undergoing genetic testing isn’t a plausible strategy, you can fight back against taste-bud temptation, regardless of your DNA. A study published in the British Journal of Nutritionfound that eating a pre-meal soup heavily seasoned with red pepper significantly lowered participants’ fat intake during the main course. So, to help prevent loading up on fatty foods, try starting with a bowl of spicy soup before you dig in for the main event. Not on the menu? Other research has shown that spicy foods in general help you eat less and burn more calories, so anything hot may do the trick.
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Buffet Mind Game #3: They make you think you’re getting a good deal.
“All you can eat” seems like a bargain, but it can cost you your health. One of the worst mentalities to have when going into a buffet is that you have to get your money’s worth, since research shows that this mindset results in overeating. In one study conducted at a pizza buffet, people who paid the regular price ate 38.6 percent more pizza than those who received a discount. Sure, eating more pie may lower the price per slice, but the real cost is to your health: That 38.6 percent increase translated into 410 additional calories and 15 more grams of fat!
Your Move: Be aware. This research doesn’t apply if you’re on an all-inclusive cruise or attending your cousin’s wedding, but it makes an important point: Having no limits on your food intake can mess with your head. So whether your fare is free or full-priced, remind yourself that just because you can eat all you want, doesn’t mean you should (or want to!). Choose wisely, chew slowly, and you’ll walk away from the buffet table comfortably full and free of post-binge bloating and regret.
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Buffet Mind Game #4: They’ll trick you into eating more fruits and veggies!
This one actually plays in your favor! A study in the journal Public Health Nutrition found that people who dined at a buffet ate 76 more grams of fruit and vegetables than those who bought their meals a la carte. The researchers suggested that buffet dining encourages people to combine different options, including adding more fruits and veggies. Also, the idea of cost plays a role: The study found that people are more likely to take fruits and vegetables when they’re part of a fixed price, but are unwilling to spend extra money for a la carte produce — especially if a more attractive, unhealthy option is available.
Your Move: Add more colors. Knowing that you’ll eat more fruits and veggies at the buffet gives you a great opportunity to maximize your nutritional intake. In fact, a study from Brazil found that buffet patrons who made a salad with more than three colors were less likely to be obese than those who had only one or two colors. One potential explanation for this connection is that salads with a wider diversity of vegetables are more flavorful without relying on fatty dressings. (Think of it this way: A salad with only one color is not a salad at all; it’s just lettuce with dressing.)