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All You Can Eat: The Trouble with Buffets

By Karen Collins, MS, RD, CDN

The next time you're overcome by the temptations of an overflowing buffet table, you can attribute at least a part of your overindulgence to natural instinct. Whether faced with an assortment of appetizers at a cocktail party or a bowl of multicolored jelly beans on the counter, research shows that being offered more variety compels us to eat more.

In fact, when provided a large selection of options, studies show that people consume from roughly one-quarter more to more than double the amount of food eaten if offered less variety. Combine this with additional research that shows that larger serving bowls result in taking bigger portions, and it's easy to see why the buffet trough can be so overwhelming.

The first battle with the buffet table is a mental one. It's natural to equate eating more with "getting more for your money" at an all-you-can-eat restaurant. In reality, you pay the same amount whether you eat what you need or overeat, so you're not actually saving any money. We face similar pressure to eat at social gatherings where frugality is not a concern; many of us nosh absentmindedly simply out of a misplaced sense of politeness.

Buffets make portion control a challenge as well. Even if you decide to merely "taste" everything, this nibbling leads most of us to consume much more food than we would normally eat at a typical meal. And, although the rules of excess apply to selecting more vegetable choices as well, many buffet lines offer a poor selection of produce or prepare them with excess fat and calories.

So how do you approach a buffet table and not over-indulge? For starters, remind yourself that a variety of choices is made available for the pleasure of choosing what you want, not as an expectation that you will gorge. Next, look over the whole range of food selections before you begin filling your plate; decide which choices appeal to you most. And remember, this is not your last meal. Whatever selections you don't choose today, you can simply enjoy at another time.

Try to take an amount of food that will satisfy your hunger without leaving you overstuffed. While some diners are satisfied by a few bites of many different selections, others find small tasting-portions to be an exercise in frustration. Another suggestion: Try taking about one-quarter to one-third of your normal portions, but practice a bit of selectivity when choosing how many dishes to sample. As you walk away from the buffet table, your plate should not be heaped sky-high.

To assemble a healthful, satisfying meal consider the following guidelines: be sure to include a protein source, preferably poultry, fish, lean meat, low-fat cheese, beans, eggs or tofu; choose some form of complex carbohydrate, for example potatoes, noodles, bread or rice; select plenty of vegetables and fruit. For good health, experts recommend filling no more than one-third of the plate with animal protein, balanced by at least two-thirds vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans.

By approaching buffet eating situations with more logic and less impulse, you can easily avoid the pitfalls listed above and enjoy a meal that is both healthful and pleasurable. Resist the desire to reach for everything that catches your eye and avoid automatically going back for seconds. When all is said and done, you'll be unlikely to lament, "I only wish I'd eaten more."

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