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Think smaller

With the festive season comes the temptation to overeat. Here are some tips to help avoid the excesses.

Christmas and overeating go together like Valentine's Day and flowers. The key difference, of course, is that flowers don't add to your waistline. Although we know we shouldn't overeat at Christmas parties, barbecues and buffets, the fact is we often do.

Our appetite plays only a small part in determining how much food we eat; in practice, a variety of environmental factors have a bigger influence on food ­consumption.

For starters, we eat more when there is more food variety, more dining companions, distractions like entertainment or TV and when the meal is accompanied by a glass of wine or beer, according to a 2007 review in the scientific journal Proceedings of the Nutrition Society. But follow these guidelines and you could limit the dietary damage.

Location, location, location: if food is visible, or we can smell it, our levels of hunger, salivation and food consumption all increase, say scientists, even if we weren't hungry before we saw the buffet table. And the more accessible food is, the more we eat. US office workers ate 5.6 more chocolates a day when the chocolates were stored on their desk rather than two metres away. Both increased visibility and ease of access result in increased food intake, so put as much distance as possible between yourself and the buffet table, and if possible keep your back to the food.

To plate or not to plate: don't use a plate for appetisers, as it will encourage you to eat more. And use a small plate for your main meal; larger plates encourage greater consumption, as shown in a recent study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. US nutritional science professors and university graduates were invited to a social celebration at the university and randomly assigned (without their know­ledge) to receive either a medium or large ice-cream bowl and ice-cream scoop. Those given larger bowls served themselves 31% more ice cream than those with medium bowls, and those with both a larger bowl and a larger scoop served up 53% more. Choosing smaller plates, bowls, serving spoons and glasses could markedly reduce your energy intake.

Eat slowly: there are no prizes for finishing first, and a greater chance you'll overeat. A 2008 study in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that women who ate their food more slowly ended up eating less. And a more recent study, in the Journal of Clinical Endo­crinology and Metabolism, found that healthy male participants had higher levels of two ­hormones - peptide YY and glucagon-­­

like peptide 1 - for about three hours after eating a bowl of ice-cream slowly rather than quickly. These hormones signal to our brain that we're full and thereby reduce our appetite and food intake. Slow down your eating by focusing on chewing each mouthful 15-20 times.

Ignore the behaviour of skinny relatives: a 2009 study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found college students ate six lollies when paired up with an overweight companion to watch a movie, but consumed on average 10 lollies when paired with a lolly-loving thin companion. An "if she can eat it so can I" attitude may be our downfall. Don't be fooled by Uncle Bob's ability to tuck away three plateloads from the buffet without gaining a pound. Focus on your own healthy eating goals. Simply being aware of this phenomenon will also help you to combat it.

Moderate drinking rules: alcoholic drinks contain a substantial number of calories (200ml of wine contains around 730kJ of energy) and they also stimulate greater food consumption in the short term and encourage unhealthier food choices, say researchers. If you alternate alcoholic drinks with water, diet soft drinks or other low-calorie drinks, this will help minimise these effects.

Make your home a sanctuary: encourage healthy eating by ensuring you always have plenty of fruit, vegetables and low-fat dairy products on hand. Research suggests people who have these healthier foods in their home are more successful at maintaining a healthy body weight.