Christmas is coming and it's not just the goose who's getting fat. Many people will also be piling on a few extra pounds over the holiday period.
So how can we use what's known about the brain to put less in our stomachs this year?
First, it helps if you know what's triggering you to eat to excess. Then you can tweak the cues around you so that you're more in control. Here are some well-tested tricks and tips:
• Canapés on offer? It's easy to pop in another without thinking. And another. So use the opposite hand instead. The slight awkwardness will mean you eat more consciously. That means you will eat fewer.
• Use a smaller plate for your main meal. You will be cued to eat by how much is in front of you. A smaller plate looks fuller and tricks your brain into thinking less is more.
• Keep serving dishes off the table. That way there's no visual cue to keep eating. And you're less likely to have seconds if you have to get up and fetch them.
• Have fewer choices on offer. A wide selection will tempt you to have a bit of everything. And that can add up to a lot. That's fine if it's vegetables, not so good if it's puddings.
• Drink from a tall thin glass. Since we tend to pour to the top, this takes less liquid than a short wide glass but looks more.
• Play slow music. You'll eat more slowly and consume less. The brain's satiety mechanism kicks in after about 20 minutes, to tell you you're full. Eat fast and you'll wolf down a lot of surplus calories in that time.
• Turn off the TV. It's easy to snack in front of the TV. Much harder when playing Twister. Hit the off button and play instead. Add some festive frisbee throwing into the mix and burn off those extra mince pies.
Why do the cues around us trigger us to eat?
Imagine that you volunteer to take part in a research study. On arrival you're given a tub of popcorn and a bottle of water. Then you sit in a cinema and watch movie trailers. Psychologist David Neal and colleagues recruited people to do just this. But there was something in that tub of popcorn that the volunteers were unaware of.
Neal sneakily gave half the group nice fresh popcorn. He gave the rest seven-day-old stale popcorn. Did anyone complain? No. They barely noticed. They munched their way through buckets of it, both stale and fresh. Even volunteers who'd said they weren't hungry beforehand, ate as much. And those who said afterwards they hadn't liked the popcorn? They ate as much too. Why?
Like many habits, eating is triggered by context. The places and situations we find ourselves in become the cue to eat. And this habitual eating takes place despite conflicting motives. In other words, we can eat when we're not even hungry. Lots.
In the popcorn experiment the cinema cued popcorn-eating. When the experiment was repeated in a meeting room, people ate less. Context is a powerful trigger to eat. To eat even if you're not hungry and the food is rubbish.
This mindless eating is carried out automatically. When volunteers were told to eat only with the non-dominant hand, they became more aware. And they ate far less popcorn.
At Christmas many of us will eat more, not because we're more hungry than usual, but because all the cues are there.
From the tinsel on the tree to the trimmings on the turkey. To our conditioned brain, this all spells overindulgence. But, by tweaking some of the cues, we can influence our brain, our appetite and we can change our own behaviour.
So to have a stonkingly good Christmas without stuffing yourself, forget willpower, forget dieting and try doing something different instead. If you need extra help try an online programme that will be with you all over the festive period to make sure you stay on track.