Why we don’t need the ‘all you can eat’ option

by Mary C. Weaver, CSCS on December 17, 2012

why buffets lead to overeating

Counting today, there are 15 days left in this tired old year. Because I’ve been blogging up a storm elsewhere (BirdsontheBlog and SpryLivingBlogs) but ignoring you, dear reader, I’m going to make it up with a post a day to close out 2012.

Some will be goodies from the archives and others brand new . . . so here goes:

When I was a little girl, I had an elderly female relative whom I’ll just describe as especially fond of breakfast, lunch, and dinner. This relative enjoyed visiting a local smorgasbord, and my mom once told me that the proprietor had told the old lady, to her face, “We lose money on people like you.”

Given the way many of us behave at buffets, smorgasbords, and other “all you can eat” opportunities, it’s a wonder restaurant owners make a dime.

Are we just gluttons? Well, no, not really.

We didn’t evolve under conditions of super-abundant food. Sometimes there was a feast—like when the tribe’s hunters had brought home a nice big kill—and sometimes there was famine, caused by drought, unsuccessful hunting, or any number of factors.

When there was a feast, we gorged. The rest of the time, we went about our business and tried to stay alive. The point is, gorging was a great strategy because it was infrequent and the occasional excess calories helped us survive.

Now? They’re killing us.

And it’s really hard not to overeat when we’re confronted with a gigantic variety of different kinds of food, both sweet and savory. Because in fact we have more than one “appetite.”

Ever notice how you can finish your Thanksgiving dinner and feel quite satisfied (if not stuffed) . . . and yet 15 minutes when, when dessert is brought out, your appetite revives? That’s because although you have absolutely no need for more calories and wouldn’t dream of reaching for more mashed potatoes, your appetite for sweets has just been awakened.

Appetite is also stimulated by sheer variety. Someone who visits a buffet with one kind of meat, two vegetables, and a starch will eat a lot less than if she’s offered fried chicken, roast beef, and ham, along with seven green and yellow vegetables, rice, potatoes, bread, and pasta. Again, it’s our nature to want more when more variety is present.

So if you eat out frequently, my best advice (and I follow it myself most of the time) is to avoid restaurants based on the “all you can eat” concept.

If you can’t avoid that, order from the menu. If that’s not possible, visit the buffet with the intention of consuming a single plate of food that isn’t heaped to the skies. And if you do go back for seconds, take just a little bit of whatever it is you can’t do without.

The strategy works. Take it from me, someone who used to have a lot in common with a certain elderly relative.



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