How to Win a Reprieve From The Food Court's Guilty Pleasures

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, December 4, 2007

You've just elbowed your way through the holiday crowds at the mall when hunger strikes. The scent of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies, hot pretzels and bacon cheeseburgers wafts from the food court, beckoning you like the sirens did Ulysses.

Ulysses lashed himself to the mast. What should you do?

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"Yule fuel" is how Brian Wansink, author of "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think," describes the tempting holiday fare that begins creeping into homes and offices as early as Halloween and lingers until New Year's.

Whether you sip eggnog laced with rum, eat potato latkes sweetened with applesauce or munch iced gingerbread men like Santa, there's no getting around the fact that traditional holiday food is delicious precisely because it's high in calories, often loaded with fat and sugar.

The steely resolve that may make you resist temptation at other times of year is undermined by a near-perfect storm of elements: stress and erratic schedules.

"We have found that the more your schedule is disrupted," says Wansink, the new executive director of the Department of Agriculture's Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, "the more room there is for mindless eating. All these environmental cues have a disproportionate impact."

Take that food court. By encountering it when you are tired and famished, it's easy to fall victim to major nutritional mischief. Plus, Wansink's research shows that we eat with our eyes and not our stomach. Cues around us -- tempting aromas, large portion sizes -- "have a huge influence on not only what we eat, but also how much we eat, and when we feel full," he says.

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