Let them eat cake

by Jennifer Bowden / 30 October, 2010
How do you resist the pressure to eat food you'd rather avoid?

'What am I supposed to do when she keeps bringing home baking to work and insists I eat it?" asked a frustrated nutrition client, desperate to get to a healthy weight. This goal was being continually undermined by a colleague in her office, who arrived each week laden with home-baked cakes and muffins, and insisted everyone ­partake in her delect­able wares.

Many of us face subtle - and not so subtle - pressure at work or friends' homes to eat high-fat and/or sugary treats we'd rather decline. So why do cake-baking colleagues and friends insist on feeding us food we don't want?

Clinical psychologist Karen Nimmo thinks alleviating guilt is a possible reason. "Often it's just a matter of people liking and wanting to eat the food themselves, and perhaps by sharing it they may lessen the guilt around that or it may make it seem okay," says Nimmo, author of My Bum Looks Brilliant in This, a psycho­logist's advice on long-lasting weight loss. Or maybe the baker is expressing care or love by giving home-made gifts, or simply seeking approval from peers by doing something they're good at, she says.

One of the great pleasures in life is sharing food with family and friends. The problem is we eat more when we're with other people - if you're with one person, you'll tend to eat 35% more; in a group of four it's 75% more; and with seven or more people you're likely to double your normal intake.

Talking and socialising in group situations distract us from how much we're eating, and we end up eating for longer than we otherwise would. Plus good manners dictate we must stay until everyone is finished - so invariably we keep on nibbling. And when we're in a group we let others set the pace for how fast and how much we eat - that is, we tend to mimic their behaviour. In several snacking experiments, people were invited to eat biscuits with someone who was actually an undercover "pacesetter". The pacesetter was secretly instructed to eat either one, three or six biscuits. Researchers found the unsuspecting snacker ate more when the pacesetter ate more.

So, it's easy to see how the office morning tea or Friday night drinks can result in unintended overeating - indulgences that leave us feeling guilty, frustrated and regretful. So what should we do? If you plan to join the party, try these tips:

Decide how much to eat before you start - "I will have only one cupcake."

Be the last person to start eating - it'll shorten your eating time and therefore the total energy you consume.

Model the behaviour of the slowest eater at the gathering - to slow down your eating.

Sit down while eating - don't stand beside the food table as it encourages grazing.

Obviously you're entitled to decline home-baked foods if eating them is at odds with your long-term health goals. Simply say "no thanks" to your insistent cake-baking colleague, and don't offer a reason "because then people always try to find a way around it", says Nimmo. But if you hate saying no, she suggests trying a distraction tactic: "No thanks, I've got something I need to do at the moment - perhaps later."

If your cake-baking colleague is a tad over-insistent, simply avoiding the situation may be the easiest option. Don't visit the office lunchroom if it's overflowing with home-baked goodies you can't resist.

Instead, make a plan to be elsewhere - book a meeting, get out of the office for an appointment, make a phone call at your desk or get out your own healthy snacks to enjoy. Not seeing those home-baked goodies will reduce the risk of over-indulgence.

Of course, if your colleague ambushes you in the hallway and demands you try her cake, some brutal honesty may be required.

"You have responsibility for everything that goes in your mouth," says Nimmo. "That's the important point." It won't have any impact on the cake-maker if you're piling on the pounds, which means ultimately the decision is yours.

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