You're overstuffed from dinner, yet you can't resist ordering the Double Dark Chocolate Two-Layer Cake for dessert. You devour an entire bag of barbecue-flavored potato chips at one sitting when you felt like having only a few. Everywhere you go, from the "big box" retailers to your own desk at work and kitchen at home, environmental cues encourage you to eat more than you need -- or even want.

Researchers are discovering just how powerful an influence these cues have on your tendency to overeat. And you don't have to overindulge by much to gain weight. "For most of us, the imbalance between our energy intake and expenditure is just 50 calories daily," says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Food and Brand Lab and a professor of nutritional sciences and marketing at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

"Ninety percent of people who are gaining 1 or 2 pounds per year could maintain their current weight if they ate just 50 fewer calories each day," he adds. If they ate just 100 fewer a day, they'd lose weight."

The single most powerful cue to consume extra calories is the simple fact that they're there. "People find it almost impossible to resist the ready availability of food," says Pennsylvania State University food-selection researcher Barbara Rolls, Ph.D., co-author of The Volumetrics Weight-Control Plan (HarperTorch, 2003).

She cites a study in which people were served soup from a trick bowl that never became empty; it refilled itself from a reservoir hidden under the table. Everyone who ate from the bowl consumed more than their usual portion of soup. When told about the trick, some went back to their normal portions. But others just kept eating, unable to say no to food that was right in front of them.

Other potent eating cues -- whether we're hungry or not -- include any sounds, smells, activities or times of day we associate with eating, such as hearing the lunch-truck horn at work, as well as food ads and low food prices. And once we're prompted to partake, it's difficult to stop. "We do a good job of being conscious of what we eat, but we spend a lot less time thinking about volume," says Wansink. "It is possible to fat-proof your environment, though. The key is to realize you're influenced by your surroundings and choose accordingly."

Here are six of the most common pitfalls you're likely to encounter, along with ways to avoid them.

Pitfall 1: Economy-sized anything
Large container sizes can prompt you to prepare or eat more food than you want. When Wansink gave women a 2-pound box of spaghetti and told them to remove enough to make dinner for two, they took out an average of 302 strands. Given a 1-pound box, they removed only 234 strands, on average.

Eat directly from a big package or container, and you'll probably consume about 25 percent more than you would from a smaller package. Unless it's a snack food like candy, chips or popcorn: Then you'll likely eat 50 percent more! In one study, Wansink gave people either a 1- or a 2-pound bag of M&M's and either a medium- or a jumbo-sized tub of popcorn. On average, they ate 112 M&M's from the 1-pound bags and 156 from the 2-pound bags -- and they ate half their popcorn, whether their tubs were medium or jumbo. "When a container is large, people have trouble monitoring how much they're eating," Wansink says.

Solution Buy smaller packages. If you prefer to buy the larger economy size of a product, repackage the food into portion-sized containers based on the label's serving size, especially if it's a snack food. That way you'll know how much you're eating.

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