Call it the countertop illusion: You grab a small bite, standing up by the counter. You’re eating light…right? Wrong. You’re actually setting yourself up to overeat later. By avoiding all the cues that come with a meal — sitting at a table, enjoying food communally, using a full place setting — you’ve tricked yourself into thinking you ate less than you did, thus justifying eating more at the next meal.

That’s the conclusion of a recent University of Toronto study in which 64 college students were given food (varied in type — sandwiches, soup, yogurt with fruit — but equivalent to roughly 400 calories) in different settings. Some were served in a traditional meal context (sitting with utensils, napkins, soft music, with a companion) while others ate standing at a counter, alone, without utensils. Both groups were then served pasta with tomato sauce 20 minutes later and told to eat as much as they wanted. Depending on the time of day, the students in the countertop group devoured about 50% to 100% more of the pasta than the traditional diners!

Avoid overeating by sitting down and taking time to enjoy snacks and meals alike, with all the accoutrements that provide the full dining experience. Other tips for conscious eating include: Dining in a well-lit room — researchers found that people are more likely to binge in a dim environment. Downsizing dinnerware, using smaller plates, glasses and even utensils, to make normal portions look larger. Adding a mirror to your dining decor could also help you better reflect on dietary choices; a University of Michigan study found mirrored diners chose lower-fat options than their mirror-less peers.

Bonus: While the key to eating less may lie in sitting down, the way to weigh less may require standing up more. Compared to lean women, obese women tend to sit two-and-a-half hours more per day.

Published March 1, 2009