It’s easy to overeat, but why does it happen?

A full table of people and multiple plates of food. 

People often wonder why they can’t resist their favorite foods, even when they aren’t hungry and don’t intend to eat. Recent research has revealed that when humans are presented with a variety of choices, we eat more, often past the point of fullness.

“Fullness” is a relative feeling. Do you know what it feels like when you’ve eaten enough? Some people tell me they don’t know, and that they are always able to eat more.

We are, however, all born with the ability to know when to eat and when to stop eating. Our social environment can cause us to “forget”; to lose awareness of fullness. After all, there’s a huge world full of different tastes, textures and types of food. If you come from a family that emphasizes the “clean plate club,” you’ve been taught that the amount you eat is based on the amount of food you’ve been served – not` how your body feels.

Humans have “sensory specific fullness.” For example, you’ve had your fill of chicken, broccoli and salad, but when someone brings out the chocolate chip cookies, they sound very good and you suddenly find “room.” That’s because cookies are so different. It’s also because humans are “hard wired” to crave fat, sugar and salt.


Brownie with chocolate mousse and cookie with chocolate drizzle.

There’s also the “variety effect,” in which a new flavor, texture or temperature of food sounds good and prompts us to eat more. You could say it “tickles” your taste buds differently. One hundred years ago, if you wanted cookies, you baked them and ate them until they were gone. Today we have countless choices of cookies. And that doesn’t even count the bakeries, restaurants or homemade cookies. This taps directly into our urge for a variety of tastes, which often prompted us to overeat.

A series of experiments demonstrated this effect. In one of them, lab subjects were divided into two groups. The first group was presented with a large bowl of multicolored candies and told they could eat as much as they wanted. Researchers monitored how much they ate.

The second group entered the room containing a series of dishes, each containing one color each of colored candy. They also were told they could eat as much as they wanted. Guess which group ate more? The group presented with dishes of candy separated by color.

After all, wouldn’t you feel that you wanted to taste them all?

This “variety effect” is why many of us tend to overeat, especially at a buffet.


Full table of different foods. 

Here are some suggestions for navigating this phenomenon. First, notice how tempting everything looks. Peruse the offerings and think carefully before you select. What are you really in the mood for right now? Remember that everything looks and tastes better when you are hungry.

Begin with what looks best, and consider taking small portions to leave room for tasting other yummy foods. Remember that as you eat and are less hungry, your food won’t taste as good as those first few bites. After you eat from your first plate, rest a few minutes before getting more food. Consider once more what you really want to eat.

One more suggestion: Remember that you don’t have to eat everything at this meal. You can always have these foods again. Our food supply is so diverse that it’s pretty rare to want something special to eat and not be able to get it. 


Ellen Glovsky.

Ellen Glovsky is a Key Biscayne resident, published author and Registered Dietitian and Nutrition Coach.  Her work focuses on helping people explore and enhance their relationship with food, using a “Health At Every Size” approach. She is also involved in the island community with her work on KBCF’s Women’s Giving Circle. To learn more, visit

To read Ellen Glovksy's last Taste of KB, click here.

To read the last Taste of Key Biscayne, click here.


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