But consider this: "If you consume 100 calories more than you burn every day, you'll gain 10 pounds by the end of a year," says Gail Altschuler, M.D., medical director of the Altschuler Clinic, a center for weight loss and wellness in Novato, California.
Sounds demoralizing. But now take that fact and turn it around: 100 calories isn't a lot of food, after all -- and you can use that to your advantage. "You don't have to make enormous changes to see benefits and get results," says Altschuler.
With that point in mind, we combed the research to find surprisingly simple ways to eat a little less. "Stack a few of these tips together," Altschuler says, "and you could really see an impact."
Take a Seat
Whenever you eat, sit at a table and use cutlery and a plate, rather than eat on the run, standing up, or at your desk. That way, the next time you eat you'll chow about 30 percent less, according to a recent study.
The study's author, Patricia Pliner, Ph.D., psychology researcher and professor at the University of Toronto at Mississauga, thinks this occurs because of the way we've been trained to perceive and respond to mealtime. Treating food like a meal, even if it's a snack, tells your brain that you don't need to eat for a while.
Hana Feeney, R.D., nutritionist at Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Arizona, adds that "if you make a rule not to eat without sitting and using a plate, you'll eliminate a lot of the mindless calories consumed by picking."
Before digging into your entree, savor a bowl of soup. You'll likely consume 20 percent fewer calories over the course of the meal (a good tip to remember if you tend to overeat at restaurants).
The soup fills and stretches your stomach, "sending signals to your brain that tell you to stop or slow down eating," Feeney says. To maximize nutrition and minimize calories, choose a vegetable- or broth-based soup, such as gazpacho, and skip the cream-based selections.
Variety may be the spice of life, but it can ruin the best intentions when it comes to eating. We consume more calories when we see an array of food, say researchers. To understand how this works, scientists gave subjects M&Ms and found that the more colors they mixed in a bowl, the more people ate.
Keep this tip in mind when planning a meal and don't go overboard with the offerings -- if you're serving rice, for instance, pass on the bread and potatoes. As for buffets, why torture yourself? Steer clear.
Bigger is not always better. Oversized dishes and spoons cause you to overeat -- even if you think you're a good judge of portions. Case in point: Nutrition experts who were given big bowls at an ice cream party devoured 31 percent more than those with smaller bowls.
Ditto on the serving spoons: Those helping themselves with bigger utensils downed 14.5 percent more ice cream than folks with smaller serving spoons (irrespective of bowl size).
"When there's empty space on the plate, a panic sets in that you're not going to have enough to eat," Feeney says -- thus the tendency to load up your dish. Cut calories by using salad plates or Grandma's china (antique plates are typically smaller). And downsize those serving utensils, too.
It's true: When we see food, we eat it. A study of secretaries found that those with chocolate candies in clear containers on their desks ate almost twice as much as they did than when the candies were "hidden" in opaque containers. They also ate less if the candy was placed at least 6 feet away from their desks. The moral? Don't mess with temptation. Keep calorie-dense treats covered, tucked away in a cabinet, or out of reach.
When you really want a snack of, say, a cookie, go for broke rather than opt for the low-fat version of the treat. In one study, people who ate snack foods that boasted a reduced fat content consumed as much as 50 percent more calories than when they ate regular versions of the same foods.
It appears that those labels function like permission slips, giving us the okay to eat our fill. "Foods low in calories or fat, or low in sugar or carbs, tend to reduce our inhibition," Feeney says.
Sniff a Whiff
Apparently, peppermint's powers go beyond freshening your breath. A small study at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia found that people who inhaled peppermint essential oil every two hours ate 23 percent fewer calories during a five-day period.
When you're struck with the urge to visit the vending machine, put this finding to work for you by keeping a small vial of the oil handy; you can also try popping a mint or sipping a strong cup of peppermint tea.
Sometimes, perception means more than reality. You can trick yourself into thinking you have more food by serving choices that spread out -- like roasted, cubed potatoes or pasta shells with sauce -- instead of dense foods, like mashed potatoes or lasagna.
The spread-out dishes look like more but cost less, calorie-wise. Craving chocolate with your fruit? Skip the bar and shave a small piece onto a bowlful. It looks like a bigger portion, so you're more likely to feel satisfied.
Text by Erin O'Donnell