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The Seven Secrets of Highly Obese People


(Courtesy of David Zinczenko)

By David Zinczenko

Why do some people simply pack on the pounds effortlessly? It's not always genetics and it's not always gluttony and you can't always blame it on lack of exercise. Indeed, getting fat is often a result of some simple -- and easily correctable -- bad habits, especially when it comes to dining out.

As my co-author, Matt Goulding, and I began researching the Eat This, Not That! series, we discovered plenty of egregious examples of super-fattening foods in both America's supermarkets and our chain restaurants. And we learned that if you just know what to order and what to avoid, you can shave off pounds effortlessly. For example, does On the Border really need to stuff more than a day's worth of calories -- 2,550 -- into its Dos XX Fish Tacos? (Remember when fish was healthy?) And shouldn't Chili's warn parents when a selection on its kids' menu comes with 82 grams of fat, like its Pepper Pals Little Chicken Crispers does?

But it's not just the food itself. The restaurant industry has spent decades studying human behavior and figured out all sorts of subliminal ways to make us want to order and eat more. (Ever notice how all fast-food restaurants use red, yellow and orange in their packaging and decor, but never blue, green or purple? Think that's just a coincidence?) And a lot of those psychological tricks have become ingrained in our behavior. In a study in the journal Obesity, researchers looked at the habits of people dining at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Those with the highest body mass indexes (BMI) -- a measure of obesity -- seemed to demonstrate a series of "fat habits":

  • They use larger plates. When offered two plate sizes, 98.6 percent of those with the highest BMIs took the larger of the two plates to the buffet. A bigger plate tricks your eye into thinking you're not eating as much, and stuffing more food onto your plate -- and into your mouth. Use a smaller plate, get a smaller belly.
  • They eat while looking at food. 41.7 percent of those with high BMIs took seats that overlooked the buffet, instead of sitting in a booth or facing in a different direction. The site of food tends to make our minds think we have more work to do, eating-wise. Keep your food stored in the fridge or the pantry, not out on the countertops.
  • They eat with maximum efficiency. While Chinese buffets offer chopsticks, 91.3 percent of obese patrons opt for forks. That just makes it easier to shovel in the food!
  • They clean their plates. Of those patrons who were heaviest, 94 percent cleaned their plates so there was nothing left. Ignore Mom's advice -- let a little linger.
  • They chew faster. Researchers actually monitored the chewing habits of the buffet-goers and discovered that the heaviest 1/3 among them chewed their food an average of 11.9 times before swallowing. The middle 1/3 chewed an average of 14 times, and the leanest 1/3 chewed 14.8 times.
  • They dive in. The leanest people in the study typically took a lap around the buffet first, to plot out what they wanted to eat. But the more overweight group charged right in; doing so means you may fill up on some less-appealing items, then have to go back to snag that one nosh you have to have, but missed the first time.

Oh, and one more habit the overweight have that we've been reporting on for years:

They skip breakfast. Doing so raises your risk of obesity by a whopping 450 percent!

David Zinczenko is the editor-in-chief of Men's Health and the editorial director of Women's Health. The Eat This, Not That! book series has sold 3.5 million copies since December 2007.

By Jennifer LaRue Huget  |  August 19, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Guest Blogger , Nutrition and Fitness  
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Comments

I like those 'eat this not that' books. It's amazing what's in some resturant food.

Posted by: RedBird27 | August 19, 2009 8:15 AM | Report abuse

"The site of food tends to make our minds think we have more work to do..."

are you at a food site? or are you looking at food?...
"site" should probably be s-i-g-h-t.

Posted by: robjdisc | August 19, 2009 9:18 AM | Report abuse

These are great. I tend to think that the human body is all about efficiency and will "train" itself to whatever your daily routine is. Just as athletes' bodies learn to exert maximum physical performance for minimal effort, obese folks' bodies learn to maximize food intake for minimal effort -- big plates, better implements, less chewing, etc.

I actually figured this out a few years ago -- I was bemoaning the size of my butt, but then realized that maybe my body had just adapted to my normal routine. After all, if you sit at a desk for hours a day, why would it be surprising that your body adapts to that by providing some extra built-in padding? :-)

So I adapted myself, and changed some of these very habits to make it LESS efficient to take in so many calories -- things like using small plates, taking small portions and making myself go back for seconds, etc. That way, the default is less food; more food = conscious decision, which at least makes it more mindful and intentional. Of course, that's not anywhere near the whole story. But it is impressive what a difference just those simple things can make. Now, if only I could fix the "inhale food" bit. . . .

Posted by: laura33 | August 19, 2009 10:06 AM | Report abuse

I have always been a very skinny person and I can definitely relate to the last bullet; I always walk around the buffet a few times while I plot out a strategy of what I'm going to eat. However, I do everything else: I get large plates and I eat very fast. But the main reason I've been able to stay thin is money. I can't afford to eat out very often. I haven't been to a buffet in aeons. I'm eating tuna and crackers for lunch with free water from the office cooler. I just don't have money like that.

Posted by: forgetthis | August 19, 2009 10:49 AM | Report abuse

robjdisc, I caught that too. It should be "sight", not "site."

Posted by: forgetthis | August 19, 2009 10:53 AM | Report abuse

One other factor: playing lots of video games. See yesterday's paper for an example.

Posted by: bs2004 | August 19, 2009 11:09 AM | Report abuse

forgetthis - I too am on the "recession" diet. Maybe I should write a book!

Posted by: Catwhowalked | August 19, 2009 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Nearly 99 percent of the fattest buffet patrons preferred larger plates? I'm shocked!

Posted by: TheProFromDover | August 19, 2009 11:26 AM | Report abuse

Turn off the air conditioning and you will eat a lot less.

Posted by: Beacon2 | August 19, 2009 11:45 AM | Report abuse

Good point about using air conditioning.

I eat a lot less in summer, and only rarely turn on the A/C.

Posted by: chunche | August 19, 2009 11:53 AM | Report abuse

An extra 12 oz. soda a day will make you gain 16 pounds a year.

Posted by: cmecyclist | August 19, 2009 12:00 PM | Report abuse

If you're feeding your child "chicken crispers" you should know that it's deep fried chicken and not be surprised that it's fatty and unhealthy. Stop passing the blame onto restaurants. You choose what you put into your mouth.

Posted by: dcres | August 19, 2009 12:40 PM | Report abuse

I am amazed at this study. I have a BMI of 20.5 and I do all of the things that they say obese people do. I eat very quickly, I take the larger plate and always go back for seconds. I actually have a major problem with leaving food on a plate (just wasteful!) The last time I ate breakfast on a regular basis probably was 15 years ago. Either this study is full of crap, or I am the luckiest person on the face of the earth (I think it is the first, not the second). It comes down to a very easy item. Exercise 5 times a week. Even if it is a 20 minute walk. My parents are very overweight, but they do not exercise. Take control of your life and do something about your weight if it is an issue. Someone at my office is always looking for the easy route to weight lose. She drinks special drinks, goes on crazy diets. When I ask her if she exercises, she says that she doesn't have to to lose weight. Obviously, she does.

Posted by: UpperNE | August 19, 2009 12:51 PM | Report abuse

Posted by: dcres | August 19, 2009 12:40 PM

Yeah, but 82 grams' worth?? You expect people to intuit that a KID-size serving of chicken tenders has more fat than a 3/4 lb. porterhouse steak? (see www.thecaloriecounter.com/Foods/1300/23002/Food.aspx)

Sorry, I'm with the posters. Yes, we are all responsible for our own food choices. But you can't make good decisions without good information. Which was pretty much the point about the chicken tenders.

Posted by: laura33 | August 19, 2009 12:54 PM | Report abuse

While this is all very interesting, I must say I just love how it conveniently wraps all of the actions of obese people in such a neat little package. So THAT'S why they are fat! Seriously, have you put any thought into why food seems to be so important to those who happen to be larger than you? Why they choose larger plates and tables that are closer to the buffet? Not because of laziness. Ever consider the psychological causes? Maybe that person is depressed and uses food as a way to comfort and fill that hole? And at times when they feel that no one truly understands them or is there for them, food is always there. So yes, there is somewhat of a desperation to get to that warm, tasty, comforting food. Oh, and ever consider that perhaps they're using forks simply because they don't know how to use chopsticks???
I'm not saying that this is the case for everyone who is overweight, but it may be for many of us out there. And while these "little steps" sound so easy, the first thing a person has to do before really making a difference in eating habits is working on their self mentally and eventually find out that food is only a temporary solution to filling that void.

Posted by: sighnyc | August 19, 2009 12:55 PM | Report abuse

"They eat with maximum efficiency. While Chinese buffets offer chopsticks, 91.3 percent of obese patrons opt for forks. That just makes it easier to shovel in the food!"

I'm willing to bet that most of the non obese use forks also. How many Americans know how to use chopsticks, anyway? I use a fork because I'd rather eat my food than wear it.

Posted by: onlytheshadowknows1 | August 19, 2009 12:56 PM | Report abuse

Like UpperNE, I also have many of the same habits. The studies aren't really that informative unless data describing the habits of obese people are always directly compared with data from identical analyses of non-obese people. Such comparisons were provided in the blog entry for chewing rate and buffet-approach, but not for fork vs. chopsticks or choice of plate size. Those data are essential to drawing accurate and appropriate conclusions! For example, if 92% of non-obese people also chose forks, then one could not conclude that the use of forks contributes to obesity.

Posted by: klewis1 | August 19, 2009 1:16 PM | Report abuse

All of this is simply the natural result of a society that places no or little value on self discipline and physical activity, whether it be through work or recreation.

Instant gratification is the name of the game. Save for retirement? Why bother? The guvmint will take care of me. Order something less fattening at a restaurant? Why bother? Sure, I see lots of stories about how bad it is to be obese, but isn't that what all this health care reform is all about? And my doctor is fat as well, so he can't lecture me about my weight.

Physical activity? Nah, I'd rather play video games.

No self discipline, no shame, mix vigorously with instant gratification society = nation of soft, fat losers.

Posted by: Curmudgeon10 | August 19, 2009 1:35 PM | Report abuse

I didn't see any comment about not eating at "all you can eat buffet's" in the first place". My main idea in the past was I had to get my monies worth by eating as much as possible. Now, I wouldn't even eat at a buffet.

Posted by: nanhanks | August 19, 2009 1:38 PM | Report abuse

I've lost 16 pounds since I've started eating breakfast and eating smaller but more frequent meals. I used to just eat a big lunch, and then a humongous dinner.

Posted by: nuzuw | August 19, 2009 2:18 PM | Report abuse

You know, I'm so sick of "obesity" articles, and new findings related to obesity, etc! I was obese from childhood through 28 years of age (BMI=24%, weight 225lbs). I decided one day that being overweight completely sucked. So rather than ordering a "lose weight with cookies" diet package, I decided to do what has been proven since the beginning of time. 1. STOP eating everything you want, and 2. Start exercising. To my surprise, 1 year later, I had a BMI of 9% and a weight of 164lbs. Yes, this is with the same emotional challenges we all deal with in our lives. Stop making excuses and sacrifice. Who cares about the habits of obese people, let's focus on not being obese anymore.

Posted by: NewsReader5 | August 19, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse


NewsReader, if you really have a BMI of 9, and you weigh 164, that makes you 9'5" tall.

You must mean 9% body fat.


Posted by: Krisipuu | August 19, 2009 2:50 PM | Report abuse

intersting article. mr nall92 and i went to an all you can eat buffet and when were entering the building a woman and her son were coming out. the mom had to be my height 5'4" and at least 350 lbs., her son about 14 same height same size. The woman looked me straight in the eye.....didn't crack a smile and said 'don't bother we cleaned them out'. My first reaction was, why would you tell me this, then I nearly bust a gut laughin. to this day i don't know if she was serious or not!?

Posted by: nall92 | August 19, 2009 3:07 PM | Report abuse

The BMI number is an easy one to use to mine data from other sources. But it is not all that helpful when Tom Cruise has a BMI over 30 and many Oriental women have low BIM's and lots of body fat. A better metric to use is "per cent body fat." That is easy to measure, but not in the data base to be mined.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | August 19, 2009 3:25 PM | Report abuse

Krisipuu, yes I stand corrected, it is body fat.

Posted by: NewsReader5 | August 19, 2009 3:42 PM | Report abuse

I really appreciate sighnyc's comments. Why doesn't anyone see or recognize that, a LOT of the times, obesity is a sign of internal struggle and pain? Why do you accept and not lambast the alcoholic that uses alcohol to self medicate, a drug addict who uses drugs to self medicate, but choose to attack and mock the obese person who uses food as their "drug of choice"??

There really isn't any compassion towards heavy people. The last acceptable form of prejudice...

Posted by: sigmagrrl | August 19, 2009 3:46 PM | Report abuse

For 4 or 5 of the 6 bullet-point "findings," why did the author leave out the corresponding statistics for thin people? The data are useless without that information.

Posted by: adm19103 | August 19, 2009 3:55 PM | Report abuse

As usual, we find that statistics are meaningless without context.

"When offered two plate sizes, 98.6 percent of those with the highest BMIs took the larger of the two plates to the buffet." What percentage of the rest of the folks took the larger plates? Maybe we ALL do!

"41.7 percent of those with high BMIs took seats that overlooked the buffet, instead of sitting in a booth or facing in a different direction." And this differs from a perfectly random choice by how much? In a full restaurant, where half the seats overlook the buffet. . . wouldn't about half of any population be facing the buffet?

"91.3 percent of obese patrons opt for forks." As other readers pointed out, that may also be the percentage of all folks who ask for forks.

"Of those patrons who were heaviest, 94 percent cleaned their plates so there was nothing left." Again, compared to what percentage of non-heavy people who clean their plates? My mom always made me eat whatever I put on my plate because it's a sin to waste food.

The last two (chewing speed and scoping out the buffet vs diving in) are at least compared to non-obese numbers. Both, however, do not seem to be causes of obesity, but symptoms of what can cause obesity - the need to get that "full" feeling; taste has little to do with it, so chewing slowly and enjoying, or cruising to find a favorite food are not necessary.

Obesity can not be fought with "all you have to do is. . ." measures - it is a complicated condition brought about by long-term habits (such as overeating and a sedentary lifestyle); it is very hard for an obese person to just "eat less and exercise more" - especially when they feel they are the only ones doing it.

Maybe, instead of giving advice, we can try to live what we preach - make sure we (the non-obese) are getting enough exercise and aren't loading up our plates. Much better all around.

Posted by: drmary | August 19, 2009 4:09 PM | Report abuse

If you're overweight and actually trying to lose weight, what in the world are you doing at a buffet anyway?

Posted by: xenon689 | August 19, 2009 4:18 PM | Report abuse

"An extra 12 oz. soda a day will make you gain 16 pounds a year."

Hmmm...I must weigh, oh, about 475 pounds then...gravity has apparently failed.

Posted by: JohnDinHouston | August 19, 2009 4:29 PM | Report abuse

My favorite psychology study: A prof asked students to come in at lunchtime for a study, lunch to be provided. He put out a plate of sandwiches and told the student to take as many as he/she wanted, and there were more in the fridge. The fat students ate whatever was on the plate and stopped, whether there was 1 sandwich or 3 or 4. The thin students ate 1 or 2; if there was only 1 on the plate, they went to the fridge for another one if they wanted it; if there were 4 on the plate, they left some. Conclusion: Fat people really don't know when they're hungry and when they're not.

Posted by: Dan4 | August 19, 2009 4:38 PM | Report abuse

Oh, come on. People order things that taste better to them. If that means the children's sized portion of chicken tenders taste better to them (they don't eat any fried food at home) than the juicy big steak (have had plenty of steak at home, thanks), they will order and eat the chicken tenders, maybe even order that twice!
Why don't people just eat that lovely broiled salmon instead of the plate of fried oysters? Maybe because the lovely salmon doesn't taste as good when you've had it four times a week with steamed asparagus and what really floats your boat is the fried oysters and a side of french fries and cole slaw.
Dieting is the culprit; don't appreciate that flaccid flavorful boiled chicken? Run screaming from your house and get a Big Mac. You'll feel better. You'll be obese eventually but you'll feel better.
People know they are eating fattening food. They're just so frickin sick of the diet.

Posted by: KathyWi | August 19, 2009 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Krisipuu, yes I stand corrected, it is "body fat." Posted by: NewsReader5
===================================

Oh, darn. And here I was imagining you as the world's tallest stringbean. :D

Anyhoo, congrats on your getting so admirably fit!

Posted by: Krisipuu | August 19, 2009 4:57 PM | Report abuse

Just one more example of authors who do not understand the difference between correlation and causation. Assuming that the provided statistics are correct, and assuming that thin people do things differently, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that these "habits" cause excess weight rather than being a symptom of the underlying causes of obesity.

Additionally, this article makes the ludicrous assumption that obese people are eating out, and if they just ate at home they would be thinner. Where are the comparisons to people who eat at home?

Posted by: rosepetals64 | August 19, 2009 5:42 PM | Report abuse

I've lost 100 pounds and have another 40 or 50 to go. This isn't the first time. I always did it on unhealthy diets before and I can't stick to an unhealthy diet for a lifetime. This time I'm all Oprah's heart doctor, Dr. Oz + thedailyplate.com where I track my calories.

At a buffet, I start with a salad plate of no salt/ no grease fruits and veggies. Then I have four piece of fried okra, a grilled chicken breast and all the steamed veggies I want. I finish it off with half a serving of their most decadent small dessert.

I start every day with splenda sweetened peach cobblery steel cut oats... kinda hard to suffer a diet when you start every day with a big healthy dessert meal. I've found the diet I can live with and enjoy. I pray everyone else does too. Especially people with kids.

Posted by: lolliedotcom | August 19, 2009 6:46 PM | Report abuse

All these behaviors support the already obese. Were these behaviors the cause of their condition, or simply enablers or maintainers? Regardless of how people want to misdirect the cause of their obesity, the fact remains that consuming more calories than your body can expend will lead to weight gain. I have to work to keep my weight down - by exercise, but mostly by diet. It is not always fun, and sometimes I remain hungry after a meal. But it keeps my blood sugar and cholesterol levels in the normal range, and my body relatively slim. It's worth the effort.

Posted by: maus92 | August 19, 2009 7:40 PM | Report abuse

I can add: before going to a potluck or a party (not a dinner party), eat some relatively healthy food before going. That way you can just eat the stuff you really want and skip eating stuff you don't want just because that's all there is.

Posted by: aallen1 | August 19, 2009 8:18 PM | Report abuse

To those saying they can eat what they want with 5 days of 20 minutes exercise a week:

Yes, you are very, very lucky.

My family has two distinct metabolisms. One where the tiniest amount of exercise counteracts really bad eating habits. We're talking relatively trim figures, acceptable BMI's and decent cholesterol numbers into their 60's and 70's while eating all sorts of beef and dairy and fatty food and lots of hard alcohol. *Maybe* a workout 3x a week for some, but usually not much more than average moving around.

The second metabolism (which is mine) shows itself in people who work out a lot (5-7 days/week of hard workout for at least an hour) and eat basically right (we're human and like a dessert or a french fry now and then, but not regularly). If we go to a buffet, have dressing on the side and eat lots of veggies. We don't like fried food, and we try and leave some white space on a big plate. And we'd rather have sashimi than a fish fry or chicken paillard than KFC.

And we battle our weight, our cholesterol, our everything. We work with RD's and have blood panels. We marvel at our fit-looking cousins and aunts who sit down to a daily breakfast of butter-dripping fried eggs and breakfast meat and cream with some coffee in it or a brimming glass of whole milk.

Genetics simply does have some play. My late grandmother had a lifetime of eating bacon, cheese, and bacon cheeseburgers w/fries or onion rings. While she was eating such meals, she'd look at our salads w/grilled chicken, hold the cheese, dressing on the side and ask if we wanted to eat so big a plate of food. Her meals were usually washed down with double martinis or Classic Coke (or just a cup of coffee with lots of cream, never decaf). Her most strenuous regular exercise was the occasional "brisk" walk...but it wasn't that often and not that brisk in her high heels because she didn't want to mess up her hair and makeup. She died in her sleep at 96 of a respiratory infection.

Me? In college to keep my weight down, I had a two-hour daily workout and my campus was full of hills I walked all day. I was a Geology major and had a very active lifestyle. And I didn't eat a slice of pizza or have a beer for two years. I ate sparingly of grilled chicken sandwiches (hold the mayo) and fruit. And this is when your metabolism is supposed to be revved in your youth!

Trust me, folks - you're lucky.

Posted by: Chasmosaur1 | August 19, 2009 8:26 PM | Report abuse

I think people need better self control during the day, especially during lunch. A good tool to use is Basikbox. Basikbox is a portion control lunch box that is great for carrying to work.

Posted by: Jessica8 | August 20, 2009 10:09 AM | Report abuse

My 42 year old daughter, a Ph.D., and her co-worker, also a Ph.D., were having a discussion about this topic. Friend is thin and my daughter asked her how she kept her weight so in control. She doesn't eat. She wishes she could but she can't. She exercises every day, never eats over 250 calories at any of her three meals, and if her boyfriend wants to go out to breakfast on the weekends, she goes, but she can't eat all day after that. We are a society that began on the savannah's, naturally exercised in the attempt to survive in the wild. And now we are obsessed with thin. This intelligent woman in every other way has been starving herself all her life to keep her thin figure. She is most unappy and there is no answer to her struggle. She ate one hamburger at lunch, no fries, no drink, and gained 3 lbs. verified by her scale the next morning. She usually does not eat the bun. The answer to our "weight" obsession? Blow up all the buildings in the world, live back on the bare ground, try to find food to survive, and we'll all be thin again. There is no answer. Thin is not "beautiful", it's an obsession of the thin. Starve yourself and be thin, or eat and die young. Be slightly overweight and live longer. Every publication, every study has a different outcome. Want to be thin? Starve yourself. Want to be normal? Find another planet where the residents are not obsessed with the outward appearance and do not judge people on that outward appearance. Because this planet and most of the people on it suck at being human. Here, have a cookie.

Posted by: xjacksprat | August 20, 2009 10:55 AM | Report abuse

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