Overeating: Why We Do It and How to Stop

Struggle with knowing when you're full? You're not alone, here's a look at a "The Endless Soup Bowl" Study that proves this point along with some tips on how you can stop it.

Ever leave a meal feeling full to the point of discomfort, wondering why you ate so much? Well, what would happen if your plate never emptied? Would you be able to distinguish when you're full and then stop eating? Cornell University Professor Brian Wansink, IG Nobel Prize winning author of Mindless Eating, decided to research this by testing whether people realize how much they eat in a sitting.

For the study, a hole was drilled in the bottom of a large cauldron filled with tomato soup, to which feeding tubes were attached that kept each participant's bowl endlessly refilled. As the subjects ate the soup, it would reduce in volume, but as soon as they stopped, even for a few seconds, their bowls would fill back to the top. According to Wansink, the participants could eat for the seven straight days and never see the bottom of their bowls.

You would think that if you were eating out of a self-filling bowl, you'd soon suspect that something was going on. But of the 160 people in the study, only two actually stopped eating. Wansink's subjects on average ate 73% more with the refillable device. After eating for awhile, they were asked if they were full. Most replied, "No, how could I be? I still have half a bowl of soup left." (Read about Plating Proper Portions.) This answer alone proved Wansink' point that the stomach has poor hunger regulation when determining fullness, so relying on it to make us stop eating may not be a valid method.

What's this have to do with athletes who never participate in refillable soup bowl studies? Well, we have all experienced the near equivalent by watching people mindlessly eating at a local buffet or school cafeteria—or eating out of boredom at home—where a constant flow of food is at their disposal.

Sound familiar? Develop a healthy approach to eating, and end overeating, with these tips:

Use Smaller Plates. At home, our plate sizes have increased 36% on average since 1960 (Schwartz 2006). Consider using a nine to 10-inch plate for your largest meal each day. (For more information on the small plate movement, read here.)

Cook Less Food. Most people are cooking more food at home, but this may not be a conscious choice. The 2006 Edition of The Joy of Cooking included increases of up to 63% on some entrées compared to the original 1920 edition (Wansink 2009). Such massive increases in volume contribute to mindless eating. Instead, cook only the amount of food you need to eat.

Buy Less Food. Everyone knows grocery stores have grown over the past 50 years, but the growth in store portions between 1970 and 2000 is astonishing (Young 2005)! Keep this in mind on your next trip. (Learn how to play The Healthy Grocery Shopping Game.)

Order Less at Restaurants. Supersize this, Jumbo size that, huge portions in restaurants. NYC has banned "Big Gulp" sugary drinks. Keep the facts in mind. Jumbo-sized portions are on average 250% larger than regular portions. And massive portions contribute to the obesity problem; just remember this at your next eatery. (Check out Portion Control at Restaurants.)

Ordering, buying, cooking and eating smaller portions is easier said than done. But if you make an effort, they will become easier over time and result in a healthier lifestyle, which is vital for a successful athletic career.


  1. Wansink, Brian, James E. Painter, and Jill North (2005), "Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues of Portion Size May Influence Intake," Obesity Research, 13:1 (January), 93-100.
  2. Wansink, Brian and Collin R. Payne (2009), "The Joy of Cooking Too Much: 70 Years of Calorie Increases in Classic Recipes," Annals of Internal Medicine, 150, 291-291.
  3. Young, Lisa R. The Portion Teller: Smartsize Your Way to Permanent Weight Loss." New York: Morgan Road Books, 2005.
  4. Schwartz J, Byrd-Bredbenner C. "Portion distortion: Typical portion sizes selected by young adults". J Am Diet Assoc. 2006;106:1412-1418.

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