The Skinny on Healthy Buffet Dining

The Skinny on Healthy Buffet Dining
Lisa Kessler, assistant professor of human nutrition and food science

What is it about all-you-can-eat buffets that lead to a smorgasbord of overeating and can challenge even the most disciplined dietitian?

Public Affairs asked Lisa Kessler, assistant professor of human nutrition and food science at Cal Poly Pomona, to share her insights on how to eat healthy and avoid overeating at a buffet.

A member of the university's Experts Online, Kessler specializes in human nutrition, food and dietetics. Kessler recently led students through a healthy eating tour for students at Los Olivos Dining Commons.

Q: What are the most important tips to remember when eating at a buffet?

There are several things we can do so we don't go totally overboard at a buffet. First, don't go to the buffet starving. Many people will not eat all day in anticipation of the buffet, but that just sets one up to lose control and quickly eat without thinking since they are so hungry. It is better to eat normally throughout the day and make wise decisions at the buffet.  Secondly, savor what you eat. That means eating slowly, taking the time to relax and enjoy what you have selected at the buffet. Some people put a second bite in before they've even swallowed the first one! Put that fork down between bites. The final tip is to watch out for high calorie items that don't add a lot of pleasure. These differ for different people. Many people can easily pass on high calorie sugary sodas, especially at a buffet. Why add 150 calories more per drink when you could enjoy another serving of your favorite side dish or a small bowl of ice cream? Others find they can pass up gravy or butter, which will lower their fat and calorie intake. Find the high calorie and high fat items that you can live without and pass them by. Choosing the few foods you really enjoy the most is the key to enjoying a buffet without feeling overstuffed.

Q: I don't know much about calories and proper portion sizes. Is there an easy way to keep my portions in check at a buffet?

Research shows that people serve themselves more or less depending on the plate size, so larger plate equals larger portions. In fact, there is even a small plate movement that was announced at the American Public Health Association annual conference in October 2008 as an idea to help Americans lose weight. At a buffet, people who are using a smaller plate generally serve themselves smaller servings but feel satisfied because the full plate looks more gratifying.

Q: How do you avoid overeating?

Following the tips I noted earlier will help. Positive thinking helps! Your mindset is really the most important thing. If you don't want to overeat and you tell yourself you will be successful in not overeating then you will be. If you think to yourself “I always overeat” you are essentially giving yourself permission to do it again. Go to the next buffet with a positive attitude and a plan to use a smaller plate; slow down while eating; select and enjoy your absolute favorite foods and leave the other foods behind. Be sure to walk around the buffet first and look at all the choices so you can decide which favorite few foods you like the most and enjoy those.

Q: Are there certain foods and drinks that should be off limits?

I generally don't like to think of any food as off limits simply because of human nature. Many of us want foods more when they become forbidden! Think about what foods you really enjoy the taste of. Take a small portion of it, enjoy it and then decide if you are full. If not, then go back up and choose another small portion of a favorite food, but if you are full, sit back and enjoy a good conversation!

Q: Are there certain foods and drinks that you encourage eating?

There are some foods that are lower in calories that many people enjoy. Typically a buffet will offer steamed shrimp and other steamed or broiled seafood, sushi, lean roast beef, roasted chicken and nice fresh melons, pineapples and strawberries. These are foods that many of us really like the taste of and we don't get to eat them too often. All of these foods are fairly low in calories, so go ahead and enjoy them. However, every food can be enjoyed; just take a small amount and savor it. When one is truly very hungry and doesn't want to overeat, it can be helpful to eat filling items that make us feel full without a lot of calories. Foods like soups (not cream based), watermelon and other fruits and vegetables typically can be quite satisfying and filling without a lot of calories. Also, don't forget to avoid the non-diet sodas since they are a dieting disaster!