Hidden Cues To Eating

Those of us who have struggled with weight control know that there is more to eating than simply responding to hunger. We eat for many different reasons, and we overeat for many different reasons. By overeating, I mean we consume more calories than we expend so that we gain weight. Or, if we are already overweight, we eat enough calories to match our calories burned so that we do not lose weight.

Easy and accessible software applications such as MyNetDiary help us set reasonable goals as well as keep track of our caloric intake and output. But it can’t do all of the work for us — we still have to make the decision to get off the couch and exercise and/or not eat too many calories.

What drives us to overeat? There has been a lot of research in this area as the behavior of eating is actually quite complex. The purpose of this article is to help you identify cues to eating so that you can learn how to manage those cues and meet your short-term and long-term weight goals.

Internal Cues To Eating

Internal cues are those that come from within and include sensations of hunger and satiation. There are hormones (peptides or short proteins) as well as nerve signals and neurochemicals (chemical messengers in the brain) that are released that drive our desire to eat as well as signal us to stop eating. Those satiety signals get released after about 20 minutes of eating. When people eat very quickly, they are more likely to eat too much since they are not giving their body a chance to tell their brain, “Hey, I am no longer hungry now, so you can stop eating.”

Certain foods and drinks, especially those high in sugars (e.g., soda pop) and fats (e.g., fried cheese sticks), are very powerful “positive stimuli” to eating. Even if our bodies might be registering, “Hey, I’m no longer hungry now,” the perception of the taste and feel of the fats and sugars in our mouth is so intensely pleasurable that it overrides the negative feedback signals of satiety. We are more likely to eat larger meals and snacks when they contain very sweet and high fat food items.

One more internal cue to be aware of is the volume of food and drink ingested. Foods and drinks that create volume in our stomach without a lot of calories are helpful for weight loss. Expansion of the stomach sends signals to our brain to stop eating since we feel satiated or full. Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., conducts research on the science of satiety and has a very useful book for all of us trying to lose weight: “The Ultimate Volumetrics Diet: Smart, Simple, Science-Based Strategies for Losing Weight and Keeping It Off.”

High fiber foods are typically filling because the fiber hugs water and distends our stomach so that we feel full. Fruit, vegetables, dried beans and peas (cooked), and whole grains are all foods that have the potential to help us feel satisfied with a reasonable caloric cost. Water and non-caloric beverages are also helpful in this regard.

While you are eating, periodically check in with your stomach. Brian Wansink, food behavior researcher, reports that we essentially have three stomach cues that we pay attention to: “starving,” “I could eat more,” and “stuffed.” You will eat fewer calories if you stop at the “I could eat more” stage rather than the “stuffed” stage. If you know that you will not stop eating until you are stuffed (and have no plans to change that strategy), then the “Volumetrics” approach will be particularly helpful to you in terms of weight control.

External Cues To Eating

External cues are those that come from our environment. Sometimes we are aware of these cues but more often we are not. They include environmental factors such as light, aroma, place, work schedule, cultural events, advertising bargains, background music, and seeing tasty foods. Some research shows that external cues influence eating more than internal cues.
One of the most informative and entertaining books I have read on this subject is “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.” Brian Wansink, Ph.D., author and — in my opinion — humorist, focuses on “the hidden persuaders around us that influence how much we eat — and how much we enjoy it.” Years of his research is summarized in this easy-to-read book. His website http://mindlesseating.org is also very helpful and contains interactive links.

The following table contains a short list of hidden cues to eating that I find particularly useful to think about in terms of managing caloric intake. Most of these cues result in eating larger portion sizes or more calories than desired. The ideas presented below are mostly from Wansink’s research, but I have also added a few to the table based upon my experience as a dietitian.

Hidden Cue What Happens Strategy

Size of container, dish, or glass

We eat and drink more calories from containers that are larger. Even people who do research in this area get tricked into eating more.

  • Snack from smaller containers.
  • If you buy extra large containers to save money, then pre-portion into single-serving sizes and store the large container somewhere out of sight.
  • Serve meals and desserts on smaller dishes.
    • Serve ice cream in little 6 fl oz Pyrex bowls — they hold about ½ cup without spilling over.
    • Drink juice from the little juice glasses that only hold about 6 fl oz.
    • Use smaller diameter plates. Appropriately sized entrées will look generous on an 8 inch or 9 inch plate rather than the large “Fiesta” ware type that measures 10.5 inches.
    • Alcoholic drinks: use tall skinny glasses instead of wide, short glasses.

Food within sight

We eat what is on our plate and drink what is in our glass. We use the absence of food as the indicator to stop eating.

Wansink’s “Bottomless Soup Bowl” study shows us that we consume more calories when the level of soup in a bowl remains constant (with hidden drain and refill device) than if the level of soup gradually diminishes with eating.

Wansink’s “Hershey’s Kisses” study shows us that seeing chocolate all day long results in eating more calories than if it is present but not visible.

  • Be mindful of what you are about to consume. Look at the portion size carefully. Do you really want to eat that amount? If not, divvy it up before you start to eat, and put the extra in a take-out container.
  • If you belong to the “clean plate club,” then consider putting 20% less of the high calorie items on your plate — most of us don’t miss it. Put 20% more fruits and veggies on your plate — that will help you feel satisfied without nearly as many calories.
  • Do not put tempting treats within your line of vision. Seeing the treat serves as a constant visual cue to eat!
  • Pre-plate high caloric entrées and sides at the kitchen. Have family-style servers for lower calorie menu items such as salad and veggies.

Restaurant food

Many restaurants serve large portions of lower cost, highly caloric food items. They make money and you feel like you are getting your money’s worth since you leave with a full stomach.

  • Nutrition education helps a lot in terms of understanding what a portion size SHOULD be for certain high caloric foods — e.g., fatty cuts of meats, fats, full-fat dairy products, dressings/sauces, and caloric beverages. See my article on “Foods To Meet Nutrient Needs” http://www.mynetdiary.com/foods-nutrient-needs.html as well as ChooseMyPlate for more information on portion size.
  • Ask the waiter or waitress not to put chips or bread on the table.
  • Before you start eating, remove part of your entrée and place it in a take-out container.
  • Split a full entrée with your dining partner, and for yourself:
    • Order a salad with dressing on the side (and don’t eat all of the dressing).
    • Order a cup of non-cream based soup.
  • Dessert: consider skipping or:
    • Share a high caloric dessert with several other people (eat about ¼ of the serving).
    • Choose a dessert that is mostly fresh fruit and contains very little added syrup, sauce, crust, or cake/cookies.
  • Eat out less frequently. Quite frankly, even with all the knowledge that I have about diet, exercise, and behavior, I find it almost impossible to lose weight when I dine out more than about once or twice a week.


More variety means higher calorie consumption.

Buffets are particularly problematic since they have variety and are also “all you can eat.” We lose track of how much we have eaten without reminders.

People consume more calories from multi-flavored or colored candy mixes
(e.g., jelly beans and M&Ms) than if there is only one flavor or color (or very few varieties).

  • Avoid buffets.
  • Go to the buffet and put only 2 types of food on your plate.
  • Keep plates and visual reminders of how much you have eaten on the table.
  • If you are eating items such as wings, leave the bones on your plate and keep the plate visible.
  • Visit the buffet table once and serve yourself what you think you will eat on one plate.
  • Limit exposure to variety in flavor or color of foods high in calories. Be especially careful at parties and places where you serve yourself from bins.

Dining with friends and family

We unwittingly let others set the pace for how fast and how much we eat.

When we eat with people we like, we tend to eat for longer amounts of time than if we are by ourselves.

We eat more with more people at the table.

  • Be the last person to start eating.
  • Pace yourself with the slowest eater at the table.
  • Leave some food on your plate to avoid the “one more serving” offer from your host.
  • Decide how much you are going to eat before you start the meal rather than during the meal.
  • Consider eating with a smaller sized party at the table.

Final Tips

I hope that this article has inspired you to think about the hidden cues to eating that can be affecting your caloric intake. Although not all physical responses to food and food intake can be controlled, we can manage our contact with external cues. We can also “relearn” how to prepare or purchase meals so that we are satisfied after the meal without incurring a huge caloric cost.

Visit the Community Forum if you have questions about eating cues and how to manage those cues. Good luck!

Katherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDE
Disclaimer: The information provided here does not constitute medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice, please visit your healthcare provider or medical professional.

This article can be found at http://www.mynetdiary.com/hidden-cues-to-eating.html