Not just what you eat, but how much believe you’ve eaten, determines how satisfying food is

When it comes to advising about what to eat for fat loss, I’m very much into quality over quantity. Eating a protein-rich diet which is relatively low in carb tends to work very well for the purposes of fat loss, even when no restriction is placed on calorie intake. Why? Well, one reason might be that certain carbs (those that disrupt blood sugar the most) are uniquely fattening, primarily through their influence on the ‘fat storage’ hormone insulin. However, even if this is not true, a major boon of these diets is that fact that they tend to be, calorie for calorie, more satisfying that say higher-carb diets.

What this means in practice is that when individuals accustomed to eating a typical (high-carb) Western diet switch to one lower in carb and richer in protein, they generally automatically eat less because they’re less hungry. Other simple tactics for quelling any tendency to overeat include avoiding foods that can stimulate appetite including those containing artificial sweeteners or laced with monosodium glutamate (MSG). Strategies for putting a natural brake on the appetite are explored in the chapter entitled ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’ in my latest book (Waist Disposal).

However, how satisfying we find food to be (and how much we eat of it) is not purely down to its chemical make-up. It has for a long time been known that, for instance, food intake can be influence by its proximity, setting (e.g. eating in front of the TV tends to lead to overeating), who you’re eating food with, and the amount served to us or we serve ourselves.

I’m not into the idea of people ‘going hungry’ when they serve themselves food, but there’s no doubt that some of us can be prone to overeating when food supply is plentiful. So, one little trick that can work here at home, is eating food off smaller plates. Personally, if I’m at home, I eat my lunch or dinner off a large-ish side plate (rather than a dinner plate). My decision about which plate to use is based purely on my level of hunger.

I was thinking about this today while reading about a study presented recently at a scientific meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. You can read about the study here.

The study was designed to test the effect of perceived food intake on the satisfaction derived from the food. The research comprised two parts. In the first experiment, individuals consumed a fruit smoothie. The individuals in this study were shown a picture purported to represent the whole fruit in the smoothie. Half the people were shown a picture of a small amount of fruit. The other half were shown a photo with more fruit in it. It turns out that, overall, those who were shown the photo with more fruit in it were more satisfied (even though they consumed the same amount of smoothie as the other group).

In a second experiment, researchers manipulated the ‘actual’ and ‘perceived’ amount of soup that people consumed. “Using a soup bowl connected to a hidden pump beneath the bowl, the amount of soup in the bowl was increased or decreased as participants ate, without their knowledge. Three hours after the meal, it was the perceived (remembered) amount of soup in the bowl and not the actual amount of soup consumed that predicted post-meal hunger and fullness ratings.”

What’s this got to do with people eating off smaller plates? Well, it occurred to me that perhaps putting a given portion of food on a smaller plate makes it look bigger, and therefore we perceive it as bigger, and perhaps get more satisfaction from it than we otherwise would.

A lot of the research on the factors that drive food intake (other than the food itself) has been done by Dr Brian Wansink. His book, Mindless Eating, is a thought-provoking and entertaining account of unconscious influences on what and how much we eat, and the simple steps we can take to reduce any tendency to over-consume food and drink. More about this book and Brian Wansink’s work can be found here.

4 Responses to Not just what you eat, but how much believe you’ve eaten, determines how satisfying food is

  1. Frank Hagan 15 July 2010 at 12:34 am #

    Interesting … I know of one diet based on smaller plate sizes, the 9″ Plate Diet. The story I heard is that Alex Bogusky bought a 1940′s era house, and his dinner plates wouldn’t fit in the cabinets. After finding some 8.5″ dinner plates in a thrift store, he started to lose weight. The NY Post covered the story with details different than the initial interview I heard, but its similar: http://www.nypost.com/pagesixmag/issues/20090104/Fitness+Special+Nine+Inch+Plate+Diet

    There’s an old marketing term, “perception is reality”, and in some cases, that’s true. I do eat much less on my low carb, moderate protein diet, and find I am satisfied with the amount of food I get, but I haven’t paid much attention to portion sizes until just recently. I lost 40 pounds and stalled, and would like to get the “final 10″ taken off in the next few months.

    Ultimately, I think any diet that makes you hungry is bound to fail; it is unnatural to “go hungry” when there is food available, and you will cheat. It is a biological imperative to eat when hunger strikes. If the perception of smaller portions on smaller plates is that you are getting more food, and that helps with satiety, it is certainly worth trying!

  2. Lori 15 July 2010 at 3:47 am #

    I belong to a forum for vintage lovers. Awhile back, the subject of plate sizes came up and a few people measured their plates from way back. (Sorry, the thread is restricted to members.)

    “As far as dinnerware is concerned, my 19th c Sevres service has 9 3/4″ dinner plates, and 7/5/8″ luncheon plates. My WWI vintage Haviland and my 1920′s Copeland Spode services have 10 1/4″ dinner plates and 9″ luncheon plates. Original Fiesta features 10 1/4″ dinner plates and 9″ luncheon plates.

    “Modern dinnerware seems to have 12″ or even 13′ dinner plates, and 11″ luncheon plates.

    “In the old days, the large plates that we see today were used as chargers, or service plates. Food was not served on them.”

    “Very interesting — I’d never thought of plate size before, but this prompted me to go out and measure. I eat off Caribe China diner plates date-coded 1951 — and none of them are larger than nine inches in diameter. The only modern dinner plate I have in the house, left here a couple Thanksgivings ago by my mother, and bought at Zayre’s in the ’80s, is 12 inches in diameter. It’s not something you’d think about unless you look at the plates side by side, but it certainly would have to make a difference in the amount you pile on at meal time.”

  3. Janet Alton 19 July 2010 at 1:06 am #

    I can confirm to the American posting above that the plate size increase is the same in England. I bought a dinner service in 1974 but when trying to buy new plates more recently they are invariably an inch to two inches bigger all round. And when you go to a restaurant they can be bigger still. We need to lobby crockery manufacturers to make smaller plates!

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