Lifestyle

A better deal? | Gustafson

I used to have a lot of memberships. Price Club, Costco, Sam's Club, you name it.

Living in the suburbs more than 20 miles away from the next major city, it made sense to buy in bulk and save money.

As a family with growing teenagers (and many of their friends as regular house guests) plus three big dogs, we went through mountains of supplies in no time. So there seemed nothing wrong with stockpiling everything from toiletries to hardware goods to frozen foods to snacks. Making fewer shopping trips also helped to keep gas expenses down.

Of course, there were added costs for storage, especially for perishable items that needed refrigeration. A larger fridge and an additional freezer in the garage left their mark on the electricity bill, but still, we thought it was worth it.

What began to concern me more, especially as the kids went off to college and our needs for provisions lessened, was that our shopping habits had become so ingrained that we still tried for the "best deals," even if it meant overstocking on items we didn't really need, at least not right away and in such large quantities.

Fortunately, we were not "hoarders" by nature and made soon the necessary adjustments. But it became clear to me how seductive the whole concept of "the more you buy, the more you save" really is.

The ability to buy in bulk, as smart as it may be as a strategy for some people and in certain situations, has been shown as a leading contributor to overconsumption that is now all too common in our society.

"Overconsumption is as American as apple pie," says a consumer report by Investopedia, a finance and investment advisory group, calling it a source of many negative financial and health consequences.

"More pressing than the financial problem is what increased consumption does to you and your family's health," warns the report. "While using extra shampoo doesn't exactly harm the environment in a way that is immediately noticeable, consuming more mayonnaise, peanut butter, cereal, frozen meals and other popular items available at the bulk stores will almost certainly affect your health in a way that you will be able to see in a full-length mirror."

'More you buy, the more you eat'

Dr. Lisa Young, a professor of nutrition at New York University and author of "The Portion Teller", agrees with that assessment. Psychologically, she says, wholesale clubs like Costco compel members to buy more to recoup their membership fees and for the obvious reason of saving money in the long run. It encourages increase in consumption, which may be harmless with items like toilet paper but not a good idea when it comes to food. "The more you buy, the more you eat," she says.

Some would argue that this shouldn't be a foregone conclusion. Why would having a well-stocked refrigerator or pantry make us overeat, just because the food is there? Because it is much harder to judge our consumption volume than our food choices, says Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing and nutritional science at Cornell University and author of "Mindless Eating – Why We Eat More Than We Think" (Bantam Books 2006). In other words, even if we have the best intentions to eat more healthily, whether we get the servings right is still another matter.

Our consumption volume – how much food we actually eat – depends on many factors other than the need to still our hunger, Wansink argues. Package size, plate shape and a variety of other outside influences like lighting, sounds, social settings and many more environmental components play a significant role in our eating behavior, many of which affect us on a subconscious level.

Especially package and portion sizes can have a considerable impact. Container sizes can influence our consumption of snack foods like chips and popcorn or inedible products like shampoo and detergent. Stockpiled items are typically used up much faster than those in smaller supply. It's just how we relate to the things we have at our disposal.

Can we counteract these trends that seem to be all too human? Sure we can, says Dr. Wansink. What's important is to alter the environment in which detrimental behavior can take place. For some, this can mean to stay away from bulk purchases altogether. For others, solutions can be as simple as repackaging bulk food into single serving containers or plating more modest amounts. As people become increasingly aware of their existing tendencies, they can find ways to work around them until new (and better) habits form.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a clinical dietitian and author of the book "The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun"®, which is available on her blog, "Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.", and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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