What are your food cues?

Even if you don’t recognize Brian Wansink’s name, you probably recognize some of his work. It’s thanks to him, and his work as director of the Cornell (University) Food and Brand Lab that we know the power of bigger plates and bowls to make us unconsciously take more and eat more food. Similarly, he and his researchers have demonstrated that we think we are drinking more than we are if we use a tall, skinny glass instead of a short, wide glass.

What’s more, the “trick” of using smaller plates and tall, skinny glasses works even if you are aware of the trick. Wansink and team have tested their theories on both knowing and unknowing subjects. Even those who say, “Oh, I’m not fooled by things like that” are, in fact, fooled. So what size of plates and bowls are in your cabinets?

Anyway, I had the opportunity to hear Wansink speak yesterday afternoon. His lecture, “Slim By Design: Scientific Approaches to Eating” discussed the power of making small changes in our food environments. He began by discussing the two eating myths that make us weight more than we would like:

  1. The size of the bowl/plate does not influence how much we eat.
  2. People know to stop eating when they are full.
I already covered #1. For #2, we can compare and contrast typical responses from Europeans and Americans in response to the question “How do you know when to stop eating.”
  • The European will answer “When I feel full” or “When the food no longer tastes good”* (internal cues).
  • The American will answer “When my plate is empty” or “When my TV show is over” (external cues).
When you tend to look to external cues to tell you when and how much to eat, you can see how tactics like using smaller dishes and keeping an attractive bowl of fruit prominently displayed can make a difference. When Wansink and his team had research subjects adopt a new behavior from a list of 20 small changes associated with maintaining a healthier weight, they found that simply using a salad plate instead of a dinner plate translated into an average weight loss of 1.97 pounds per month, while always eating in either the kitchen or dining room translated to an average weight loss of 1.58 pounds per month.
As he said in his lecture, and at the beginning of one of his books, Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, “The best diet is the one you don’t know you’re on.” Making small changes like using smaller plates can easily shave off 100-200 calories a day. Techniques like this turn “mindless” eating on its head and let it work for you instead of against you. You don’t feel deprived, and in fact the resulting calorie deficit, while being significant enough to help with gradual weight loss or avoidance of gradual weight gain, is not so restrictive that your body goes into panic mode, like it would with, say, a diet that forces you to cut your calories from 2,000 a day to 1,200 a day.
I’ve been eating off smaller plates and out of smaller bowls for a few years (unless I’m eating a big salad that is mostly vegetables…then I go for a big bowl or plate), and even though I know what I’m doing, it does make me feel like I’m eating more food than I really am. There are few things that bug me more than serving myself a moderate portion of food on a huge plate. All that extra space screams, “fill me up!” Similarly, I prefer to drink beer or wine out of small glasses. That way, I can have a refill and still be within the parameters for moderate daily intake. I feel like I’m being indulgent, when really I’m not…even though I know the trick.

Wansink has a new book, Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life, coming out in March. If you are intrigued and want to know more, check out his TEDx talk, “From Mindless Eating to Mindlessly Eating Well” (he covered a lot of this material in yesterday’s lecture):