Why Restaurants Make You Fat

Restaurant Syndrome: 1. Eat out. 2. Eat too much. 3. Feel bad. 4. Repeat. The Daily Beast’s Susan B. Roberts on why you do it—and five ways to minimize the damage.

Here is a situation that is probably familiar: You’d ideally like to lose some weight (and you definitely don’t want to gain more), but then you go to a restaurant and eat way more than you planned. The food may not even be that great, but you eat it anyway and come home feeling bad. You swear it will never happen again, but it does…again and again. You blame yourself for being weak, but that’s not the problem. You simply have what we can call Restaurant Syndrome.

The problem with eating out in America today is that it’s making us fat. Studies done at my laboratory at Tufts University showed that the relationship between eating out and weight gain is very straightforward: The more frequently you eat out the more likely you are to carry excess pounds. It doesn’t seem to matter too much where you go; statistically speaking, a healthy sandwich place seems to cause just as much overeating as fast food or your local Chinese.

Simple things like covering the bread basket with your napkin or “accidentally” spilling a little water over leftover French fries really work.

That’s bad enough, but then, after you eat out, you have to live with the self-blame (or at least most of us do). Why, why did you do it? Why didn’t you order the grilled chicken salad, or at least leave half that huge pasta serving and most of the sauce on your plate? And you really didn’t need to raid the bread basket but did it anyway, and you didn’t need the second glass of wine or the free chocolates that turned up after you thought you had finished. Whatever the reason, you are the one who ate all that food, nobody forced you, and so it’s clearly your fault…or is it?

And to make matters worse, the damage doesn’t stop there. Even if you resolve to eat better tomorrow, when tomorrow comes around you are most likely very hungry. How unfair! But it’s a fact: Because of a real if little known phenomenon called the “second meal effect,” you actually are hungrier and need to eat more at the next meal to feel adequately satisfied after a particularly delicious meal. If you lived in a society where food was only cyclically available, this would be a good thing, since the big meal would signal you on a biological level that there was food to eat, so go get it! But in a world of constantly available food (usually sold in super-large portions), this biological trigger just leads to weight gain.

Why are we prisoners of our desire when faced with a full table? Aren’t we autonomous beings with a good amount of cerebral control over our life? Actually, no, at least not when it comes to food. Our metabolism, hunger, and even the synthesis of addiction neurochemicals like dopamine are controlled by our environment. The concept that the world surrounding us actually controls our metabolism is a big thing to get your head around, but once you do, it makes dealing with food so much easier.

Here is how it works. When we see, smell, or taste something good, the sensory signals that get into our brain through our eyes, nose, and mouth activate what is known as the cephalic (preparatory) phase of digestion. Our saliva secretion increases; our blood glucose drops; our stomach muscles relax (so we have a larger stomach that needs more food in it to feel full); and our digestion accelerates (so we can put away that food more quickly to get ready for more).

And here is another important thing to know: The areas of your brain that are stimulated by the sight and smell of food in your environment are for the most part in the lower unconscious areas where willpower (which by definition is the conscious control of conscious processes) doesn’t reach. No wonder so many of us struggle with weight problems.

Which leads us to the important question of what, if anything, we can do to make it possible to eat out without overeating.

The secret comes down to putting to good use what we know about how the food in front of you controls your metabolism. Based on my experience getting weight loss working for busy people who simply can’t stop eating out just because they want to lose weight, here are five good ways to get your natural biology working for you better to avoid overeating:

1. Nip negative cycles in the bud. Sure, your natural inclination may be for something more indulgent, but a big bowl of All Bran or Fiber One Original is great diet medicine the morning after eating out, and gets you back to feeling in control sooner.

2. Eat out less frequently, even if you go out just as often. Yes, eating out less is easier and very effective, but if you can’t do that, it’s quite liberating to realize that you don’t have to eat out even if you go out. Events like work breakfasts are a great place to start. If you have a good breakfast at home before you set out, you can just nibble on some fruit and coffee, and be sociable without overeating.

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3. Never arrive starving. There is nothing like the combination of hunger and eating out for sending calorie counts through the roof, so eat something satisfying before you go out. One of my patients carries two apples in her pocket, which is a great way to make sure you never have to walk into a restaurant hungry, even if an invitation comes up at the last minute.

4. Micromanage your order. What isn’t on the table doesn’t get inside your head, so micromanage your order. Simple requests like asking for dressing on the side are only the start. Just because the French onion soup usually comes with gobs of cheese and bread doesn’t mean your serving has to. And they really don’t need to put anything under that delicious spicy grilled fish or add butter on top once it is cooked.

5. Take control over the signals your eyes and nose send your brain. I know it sounds too easy to be effective, but simple things like covering the bread basket with your napkin or “accidentally” spilling a little water over leftover French fries really work.

Director of the Energy Metabolism Lab at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center and professor of Nutrition and Psychiatry at Tufts University, and author of a new approach to weight loss called The Instinct Diet, which was recently featured in The Daily Beast.