Restaurant mind games can knock you off health wagon

Menus are designed to tempt you to buy more.
Menus are designed to tempt you to buy more. Getty Images

Your surroundings have a lot to do with the amount you eat and how much you enjoy it. In fact, lighting, music, color, menus or your server’s charm play an important role.

“Your environment affects how much you enjoy eating even more than taste,” says Herbert Meiselman, a retired senior research scientist and food expert for the U.S. Army.

And that’s why eating out often translates to eating too much. Here are some pointers to help you enjoy your food outings without derailing your diet goals.


Problem: The longer you sit at the table, the more you eat.

Traditional restaurant settings relax you and increase your enjoyment of meals. As a result, you stay longer and end up eating more.

Solution: Be aware of your surroundings, both at home and in a restaurant. It just might save you a few calories.

Reading the dessert menu doubles the likelihood that you’ll order dessert, so simply decline your server’s offer to read all those off-your-diet options.


Problem: Menus are designed to tempt.

Menus are designed to taunt us and get us to buy more. And, according to Brian Wansink of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, reading the menu doubles the likelihood that you’ll order dessert.

Solution: When your server asks if you’d like to see the dessert menu, your answer should be no.

However, if you do feel like having dessert, give yourself a few minutes for the main course to settle. You might end up skipping it or ordering something lower in calories.

Also, be wary of extras, like fatty appetizers and fancy, high-calorie drinks.


Problem: Servers are also salespeople.

Servers are trained to use colorful, enticing language to describe dishes. Their tips are based on a percentage of food sales, plus they often get bonuses if they sell the most non-entree items such as appetizers, drinks (think “liquid calories”) and desserts.

So, instead of just saying, “Hey, would you like something to drink?” the server might ask, “We have a superb chardonnay that goes beautifully with your halibut — may I get you a glass?”

Solution: The tendency for us to get “sold” on consuming more than we normally would is especially high when it comes to dessert. Perhaps the conversation is lively and you want to continue to enjoy the company, or maybe you don’t want to make your dessert-ordering guest uncomfortable, or you get sucked in by a friend or family pushing you to “share.”

Just say no.

When you listen to slow music, you decrease your chewing intensity and you enjoy your food more.

Nanette Stroebele-Benschop, researcher at Hohenheim University in Germany

Wansink also suggests putting in a “stop order” with the server — tell him or her you don’t want dessert and he or she shouldn’t even bother bringing you the menu or dessert cart. Recent physiological evidence suggests that seeing a tempting food can enhance hunger by increasing the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward, Wansink adds.

Take control of your meal instead of letting it control you. One way to do this: Eat more slowly. You’ll wind up consuming less and having more time to enjoy the company.


Problem: Music can increase your calorie consumption.

“When you listen to slow music, you decrease your chewing intensity and you enjoy your food more. Your nervous system slows down. You’re more relaxed and simply eat slower. However, you can end up eating more because you sit at the table longer,” says Nanette Stroebele-Benschop, a researcher at Hohenheim University in Germany. If you listen to fast music, you eat faster.

Either one can work to your advantage. “Eating slower also gives your brain a chance to recognize that your body has actually consumed food; otherwise you might keep eating even though you’re not hungry,” Stroebele-Benschop says.

Solution: Pay attention to the music at restaurants, and remember that you might be sitting for longer than you normally would. Or, if you’re in your own home, you can simply eat without distractions.


Problem: Good food aromas can increase eating.

Ah, the tastebud-tingling aromas. Smell definitely enhances the tasting experience. In fact, studies in nursing homes have found that adding great-smelling foods to a menu increased consumption.

“Simply seeing or smelling a favorable food can increase reported hunger and stimulate salivation, which can be correlated with greater consumption,” says Wansink. In “real-world” situations, this might translate to overeating regardless of hunger.

Solution: Try to review the menu online before you go and have a few healthy food choices in mind before you arrive.


Problem: Even lighting can stimulate your appetite.

The more romantic or dimmer the light, the more we tend to eat. Low light decreases our inhibitions about eating and also reduces our ability to pay attention to what we’re eating, says Stroebele-Benschop.

How many times have you gone to the movies and felt more comfortable munching popcorn because no one was looking?

Both dim and bright lighting at a restaurant can cause you to eat more than you would at home.

Solution: Make sure to maintain focus and awareness of what you’re eating even when the lights go dim.

(On the other hand, research shows that bright light can also cause you to eat more because it creates a state of arousal, encouraging you to eat more rapidly.)


Problem: You eat more when it’s “included.”

We tend to eat more when food is “packaged” together. For instance, some specials include extras such as a glass of wine, dessert and/or side dishes.

Solution: Just because it’s free doesn’t mean you have to take it. You can order the special; just give some of your food to someone else at your table.

Charles Platkin is a nutrition and public health advocate and founder of