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Buffets: 3 steps to beat a weight control challenge

Scientists have discovered something about mice that may help people trying to avoid weight gain over the holiday season.  Turns out that you can’t make a normal mouse overweight on regular lab chow – they automatically eat only the amount needed to maintain a healthy weight.  So how do researchers studying obesity get usually normal-weight mice to become overweight?  The Cafeteria Diet.  When mice get access to many different high-calorie foods, they can’t seem to help but overeat.

Buffets can make healthy eating a challenge

Buffets can pose a challenge for healthy eating

This behavior is similar to what happens to many people faced with buffets.  Fortunately, humans don’t need to resort to lab chow – we can realize the problem and learn to deal with it.

Step One: Establish your mental outlook
Make your first step toward the buffet table a mental one.  Many people feel obliged to eat some of everything out of a misplaced sense of politeness.  Remind yourself that the variety is for our pleasure to choose what we want, not a requirement to eat it all.

Think back through your past experiences with buffets and other situations offering overwhelming amounts of food.  Once you’re home, will you really say, “I only wish I’d eaten more?” 

Step Two: Make choices
For many of my clients through the years, it has been like breaking news to hear that you don’t have to pick up a plate at the beginning of the buffet table and make your way down the table heaping on some of everything. The problem is that if you’ve already filled most of your plate at the beginning of the line and then come upon selections you like better, you’ll have a tough time passing them by.

It is completely appropriate to look at all the options before beginning to make your choices.  Remind yourself that this will not be the last time you ever see most of these foods: whatever you don’t have today, you can have another time.

Hunger may not be the primary driver of how much you eat from a buffet, but if you don’t make choices that can satisfy hunger for several hours, it will be even harder to resist the array of tempting foods. So choose foods with hunger satisfying power by selecting some source of protein (poultry, fish, meat, cheese, beans, eggs, tofu) and searching out sources of  dietary fiber (vegetables, fruit, nuts, whole grains and beans) — often  sadly scarce on holiday buffets.  For healthiest balance, aim for no more than one-third of the plate for animal foods, balanced by at least two-thirds holding the vegetables, fruits, grains, beans and small portions of nuts.

Step 3: Find your portion strategy
Buffets make portion control a challenge.  Whenever there is greater variety, people tend to eat more.  If you are putting a greater variety of foods on your plate than usual, then taking “everyday size” portions (the size you’d take if you were choosing only three or four different foods) becomes completely inappropriate. Choosing smaller “party size” portions can’t make up for putting too many foods on your plate, but it does make sampling a variety of offerings perfectly workable.

Aim for a total amount of food that will satisfy your hunger without leaving you overstuffed.  Some people enjoy tasting many foods;  they put only a few bites of many different selections on their plates.  For other people, such portions are an exercise in frustration.  They do better taking about one-quarter to one-third of their normal portions while being selective about how many different dishes they sample. 

Your plate should not end up heaped sky-high as you walk away from the buffet table. Multiple plates half-full of food end up with the same result: too much food.

Two sides of the Bottom Line: 
*By approaching buffet eating situations — whether at parties or in restaurants – with more logic and less impulse, most people can eat both healthfully and enjoyably.

*If you’re the one providing a buffet, please be kind in the truest sense.  Many people struggle to eat healthfully and manage their weight. Fortunately, food doesn’t have to be loaded with fat or sugar to be delicious.  If you’re going to offer some foods higher in calories, provide a wide variety of lean, healthful options, too. 


For ideas of delicious and nutritious foods to serve — for yourself and your family as well as larger gatherings — check this brochure you can download free of charge from the American Institute for Cancer Research website,  New American Plate: Fruits and Desserts


Brian Wansink, PhD, Cornell University’s expert on “Mindless Eating,” offers observations on people’s behavior at Chinese restaurant buffets

Rolls BJ, Roe LS, Meengs JS. The effect of large portion sizes on energy intake is sustained for 11 days. Obesity (Silver Spring), 2007 Jun. 15(6):1535-43.

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