I recently got back from a trip to Boscobel, Jamaica with the family. We stayed for a week at the beautiful Beaches Boscobel all-inclusive resort there (that’s a picture of the resort right over there). The operative term there is “all-inclusive”.
Each morning (and sometimes for lunch) we chose the buffet. The process was your fairly standard buffet process. You walk up to a stack of plates, grab one, and pile it on.
At the beginning of the line, there were two stacks of plates – one had large dinner plates, the other was a tower of smaller salad plates. I opted for the bigger plate every single time. The stack of salad plates was almost always taller; it seemed that most people opted for the larger plate (I even saw one fella wait for the larger plates after they ran out, choosing to wait rather than use a salad plate).
I rationalized using the bigger plate because we were on vacation, and I wanted to save time (and energy) by taking fewer trips to the
trough buffet line. But was this a rational decision about my food intake? As it turns out, not so much.
The errors in my logic are many. First, I said I wanted to save time. Time for what? I was on vacation. I (seriously) lounged by the sea or in the pool nearly all day (when I go on vacation to the Caribbean, I go into full shut down – it’s nice to decompress from the hectic life). Second, I wanted to save energy. Again, for what? Swimming to the bar?
But it was even more irrational than that. As it turns out, had I (or anyone else, for that matter), chosen to use the smaller salad plate, we would have potentially consumed 34% fewer calories, and been just as satisfied! I was overeating by a full third without even thinking about it.
Brian Wansink is a professor in the fields of consumer behavior and nutritional science and the director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University. He is widely considered the expert in the field of mindless eating. He’s recently presented 3 studies that show the effects of plate, bowl and portion sizes on food consumption.
In one study at a health and fitness camp (of all places), campers were randomly given either a large bowl or a small bowl (bowls were the same depth, but larger diameter). The results? Folks that used the larger bowls ate 16% more cereal than those given smaller bowls. The most interesting part? The campers were asked estimate how much they actually ate. The estimates of the large bowl group were, on average, 7% lower than the small bowl group! [Wansink, Brian and Koert van Ittersum (2006), "The Visual Illusions of Food: Why Plates, Bowls and Spoons Can Bias Consumption Volume," FASEB Journal, 20:4 (Mar 6) A618-A618, Part 1]
They ate more and felt like they ate less!
How about movie popcorn?
158 moviegoers in Philadelphia (57.6% male; 28.7 years) were randomly given a medium (120 g) or a large (240 g) container of free popcorn that was either fresh or stale (14 days old). Following the movie, consumption measures were taken, along with measures of perceived taste. Moviegoers who were given fresh popcorn ate 45.3% more popcorn when it was given to them in large containers. This container-size influence is so powerful that even when the popcorn was disliked, people still ate 33.6% more popcorn when eating from a large container than from a medium-size container. Even when foods are not palatable, large packages and containers can lead to overeating… [Wansink, Brian and Junyong Kim (2005), "Bad Popcorn in Big Buckets: Portion Size Can Influence Intake as Much as Taste, " Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 37:5 (Sept–Oct), 242–5. ]
In another study, appropriately called the bottomless bowl study, Wansink and team sat people down at a table to have a bowl of soup. Two of the bowls were your standard run-of-the-mill bowls. However, two of them were rigged with a tube underneath the table that slowly refilled the bowls as the people ate (they were filled so slowly that the diners were unaware there was extra soup being pumped into their bowls). Results? The bottomless bowl crowd ate a73% more soup than their peers! How about calorie estimates? The normal bowl diners estimated they ate about 32 calories fewer than they actually did. The bottomless group? A 140 calorie estimate. [Wansink, Brian, James E. Painter, and Jill North (2005), "Bottomless Bowls: Why Visual Cues of Portion Size May Influence Intake," Obesity Research, 13:1 (January), 93-100.]
These studies speak to our desire to “clear the plate” so to speak. Many of us have been trained from an early age to eat everything on our plate (thanks, Mom!). That training apparently worked. Perhaps too well.
So how can you use this knowledge? Well, here are some thoughts. First, use smaller plates and bowls. Not only will you eat less, it also causes the same type of active decision making that the well-intentioned but misguided Mayor Bloomberg is trying to implement in New York City.
Now, especially when speaking to the popcorn study, why not put a little bigger serving of the healthy stuff that you don’t like on bigger plates or in bigger bowls? Even if you don’t necessarily like it, you’ll eat more of it.
At the end of the day, we have to come to grips with the fact that we don’t always make rational decisions. But, as the old GI Joe cartoon’s used to say, “Knowing is half the battle.” What are you going to do with this knowledge?
Now I’d like to hear what you think. Do you agree? Disagree?
Hit me with your comments and questions below!
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