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updated: 8/31/2011 10:16 AM

Buffets need not be a pigout

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Q. I've heard that when people eat at restaurant buffets, calorie consumption goes way up. Is that because of the kinds of foods served or do we eat differently at buffets?

A. Many people find that they overeat at buffets -- whether in restaurants or at parties -- and studies do show a link to higher calorie consumption. Sometimes the foods are high in calories, since foods in high-fat sauces tend to hold well on buffet tables. Yet often our eating behavior is part of the problem.

Do you equate eating more with getting "more for your money" at a restaurant? If so, getting seconds and thirds at a buffet may seem like a really good deal. Keep in mind though, if overeating is frequent, the cost of new clothes and medical expenses as weight increases makes overeating pretty expensive.

Another challenge is that whenever there is greater variety, people tend to eat more. Unfortunately many buffets offer a wide variety of refined starchy foods and desserts, while offering very few vegetables choices or loading them with fat.

Even when people think they will only "taste" everything, this nibbling adds up to more than a standard meal. If you really enjoy tasting many foods, take only a few bites of each selection. If you find such tiny portions frustrating, be more selective about how many different dishes you sample.

Your plate should not be heaped sky-high as you walk away from the buffet table. Then, rather than immediately hopping up to go back for more, wait for at least 10 minutes when you're done to see if you are still hungry.

An observational study of people at a Chinese restaurant buffet concluded that people who were less overweight were more likely to use a small plate and browse the buffet before serving themselves, more likely to leave food on their plate, and more likely to sit where they were not facing the buffet table (thus perhaps less likely to be reminded that they could go back for more). All these behaviors can help us stay more in control of our choices when confronted with an abundance of (often high-calorie) food.

Q. I want to be healthy, but as a woman, I'm afraid to follow recommendations to lift weights, because I work hard to be trim and do not want to be big and bulky. Are weights that important?

A. Count this among the fears that you can cross off your list. If men use heavy enough weights, they visibly increase muscle bulk because of their high levels of testosterone. Without that, women won't bulk up without major weight-lifting.

However, with strength-training, women can increase strength to do the life activities they want to do, like climbing stairs and hills and carrying packages and suitcases.

You mention that you work hard to stay trim: strength-training is your ally in that goal, because it helps maintain calorie-burning lean body tissue that otherwise decreases each year after age 30. Furthermore, even without "bulking up," strength-training improves bone health and strengthens muscles associated with balance to reduce risk of falls.

Federal guidelines recommend physical activity specifically focused on muscle-strengthening two or more days a week for adults. Strength-training can be accomplished with free weights, stationary weight machines, elastic bands or using your own body weight (for example, in push-ups and squats).

• Provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research. Learn more about the group and its New American Plate program at aicr.org.

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