You walk into a restaurant for a healthy salad—dressing on the side—and stumble out an hour later with a high-calorie food baby on board. And maybe a doggie bag of leftover cheesecake. D’oh! What happened? Turns out everything from where you’re seated, to the candles on the table can influence your food choice at a restaurant, and sway even the healthiest and headstrong of diners. What’s a health-conscious foodie to do? Here are 8 ways to damage control your restaurant order—before you eat.
Rock the high-tops.
Turns out where you sit in a restaurant has serious impact on how many calories you consume. According to Slim By Design author Professor Brian Wansink, director of Cornell's Food and Brand Lab, diners seated at high-top bar tables tend to order more salads and fewer desserts than those sitting in booths. Sit near the front of the house if you can, Wansink suggests, as people sitting farthest from the front door are 73 percent more likely to order dessert.
Beware of diet decoys.
A menu that’s punctuated with lots of healthy items like salads can actually trick us into ordering junkier meals than we would otherwise. A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research saw french fries orders triple when salad was also an option. It’s a phenomenon experts have dubbed “vicarious goal fulfillment.” In other words, by simply acknowledging a healthier option, diners feel they have satisfied their dietary goals and can order whatever they want.
Don’t have what she’s having.
If you want to eat healthy when dining out with a group of friends, keep healthy company … or order first! A University of Illinois study found that groups of people tend to order similarly, especially when forced to say their order out loud. The researchers attribute the results to the fact that people are happier making similar choices to their peers.
Pick somewhere sexy.
Cool jazz, low lights—even if you’re not feeling particularly romantic, a date-night spot that sets the mood may increase your meal satisfaction, making you less likely to overeat. A restaurant study published in the journal Psychological Reports found that customers who dined in a relaxed environment with dimmed lights and mellow music ate 175 fewer calories per meal than if they were in a more typical chain restaurant environment.
Pick somewhere you’ll spend a little extra.
A bigger bill may have metabolic power. A study published in the Journal of Sensory Studies found diners who paid $8 for a pizza, rated it as being 11 percent tastier than those who paid half the price ($4) for the same pie. In both situations diners ate an average of three slices, but the pleasure difference has real consequences for weight loss. According to research published in the journal Trends in Endocrinology and Metabolism, pleasure catalyzes the relaxation response and aids digestion. In other words, the more you enjoy a meal, the more readily your body burns through the calories.
Don’t size up your server.
Your decision to stick to your diet or go for the cheeseburger deluxe may be influenced by the size of your server, researchers say. A study printed in the Journal of Consumer Psychology found that dieters were more likely to overindulge when the person serving them looked overweight, while non-dieters ate more when the server was thin. Don’t be swayed by your server.
Fork it over.
Holding your fork in your non-dominant hand can curtail your calorie intake, simply by making eating that much harder. A study printed in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found moviegoers grabbed for less popcorn when doing so with their non-dominant hand. Add a knife and fork to the mix, and you’re in business. Researchers say eating with your non-dominant hand forces you to slow down and think about what you’re doing, which may help you eat less. Chopsticks provide the same slow-down benefit.
Invite a dude to dinner.
It may not surprise you that women eat smaller portions when dining with male company, but what may shock you is the same is true for men. According to a study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology, women ordered items with 15 percent fewer calories when eating with men as opposed to women. Surprisingly, when men sat with other men (think: beer and wings night), they also ordered fewer calories—22 percent less, in fact! Researchers say the results speak to unconscious scripts about how men and women think they should behave in each other's company.