Something to chew on7 min read . Updated: 01 Apr 2015, 10:12 AM IST
Smaller plates, restricting access to certain foods, keeping a food journalways in which you can determine what you eat and how much you eat
What prompts us to eat more than we would like? Part of the problem is that most of us are not aware that we’re making around 200 food-related decisions in a day, says Brian Wansink—John Dyson professor of consumer behaviour at Cornell University, US, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think and Slim By Design: Mindless Eating Solutions For Everyday Life—in a phone interview. These 200 decisions don’t just include, say, picking oatmeal over rice crispies for breakfast but also how much to serve in the first place, how much milk to add and whether to go for seconds.
It’s hard to be mindful about all the 200 food decisions, all of the time, says Prof. Wansink. His advice: Make changes in your environment to “mindlessly" eat better—like moving to smaller plates and serving bowls.
Prof. Wansink recommends downsizing plates from 12 inches to 10 inches—his research to show that smaller plates help in portion control by creating the perception that we’ve eaten more than if we had put the same amount of food in a 12-inch plate, precipitated a Small Plate Movement in the US in 2008. The movement recommends that American householders downsize their plate size by those 2 inches, to reduce an individual’s food intake by up to 22%.
Prof. Wansink’s research also showed that most grown-ups eat 92% of what they put on their plates at meal times—because the smaller plate can accommodate less food, it may result in most people eating less.
To be sure, there are studies that contest the small-plate fix. Some point out how second helpings can wipe out any effects of limiting the plate size, or talk about how the science of how or why this might work is often fuzzy.
We spoke to Prof. Wansink, obesity experts, medical practitioners and chefs to unpack their take on the small plate, sharing food, getting half your order packed while eating out and more.
New Delhi-based clinical nutritionist Lovneet Batra, who is also a consultant with Fortis La Femme hospital, says one reason we feel we’ve eaten less out of a larger plate is because of an optical illusion. The rim of a plate, it seems, can make a world of difference. “When one looks at concentric circles, the perceived size of the interior circle changes when the circumference of the outer circle is altered: If the outer circle becomes larger, the perception is that the inner circle becomes smaller. This applies to our food psychology," says Batra. She recommends anything close to 8 inches for a plate for the regular Indian household.
Give up the mentality of large, says Atul Peters, director at the Institute of Bariatric, Metabolic and Minimal Access Surgery at Fortis hospitals in Shalimar Bagh and Nehru Place in the Capital. Large plates, bowls and spoons prompt us to serve ourselves more generously, says Dr Peters. And habit and a “waste not, want not" justification to polish our plates clean will result in us overeating.
To share or not to share?
Batra says even calorie-rich foods tend to taste less yummy after the third bite—like most things in life, they are not exempt from the rule of diminishing margins. Instead of finishing a whole slice of chocolate cake, split it with a friend, she suggests.
But it’s also easy to repeatedly dip into the party mix on a night out with friends—most of us have no notion of how much we’ve eaten at these events. Or of when to stop. Prof. Wansink’s research shows that people eat more when they’re sharing. What’s more, they also eat more when they are in the company of big eaters—who, it seems, skew our sense of the normal portion size for everyone at the table in favour of largesse.
Chefs across the country gave a split verdict on whether people are sharing more.
At Smoke House Deli in the Capital, group chef Shamsul Wahid has changed the small plate to fit the sharing patterns. Instead of ones, threes and fives, he says, the appetizers now come in even numbers, because most diners come in groups of two-three—the food is cut up to make sharing easier, because eating out is still largely a social experience in the country.
New Delhi-based Noah Barnes, head chef, The Hungry Monkey, however, finds that most customers at his restaurant are interested in tasting all the elements that the chef puts on the plate, and that makes sharing harder.
Time between orders
Sharing a platter at a restaurant can work well for diners, says Ritu Dalmia of the DIVA restaurants in New Delhi. Her latest restaurant, DIVA Spiced, has a bigger focus on small plates than her previous ventures. This is because canapés can give you a taste of four-five things that a chef serves. “For most of us, our eyes are bigger than our stomachs," says Dalmia. Sharing three small plates among a group of four can give diners the variety they seek without loading up on too many calories. Research shows it can take up to 20 minutes after eating for the brain to register satiety signals—the time lapse between finishing the first set of small plates and ordering another round may then be crucial in this regard.
Raul Martinez Ramirez, executive chef, La Bodega, New Delhi, agrees: “My recommendation would be to order one dish at a time rather than over-order on arriving at the restaurant. We are often hungry and overestimate the amount of food we need. Small plates allow that flexibility. Also taking a break between orders gives your body the time to register that it is full."
Batra has an interesting idea for avoiding overeating at a restaurant, either because there’s so much food in front of you, or because you don’t like wasting food: Request the server to pack half your meal even before it comes to the table; you can eat the rest for lunch the next day.
To avoid eating a big meal at a buffet or party where there’s a variety of foods Prof. Wansink suggests a wacky-sounding idea. Serve yourself only two items at one time. Say, you’ve got a plate half full of brownies and the other half full of peanuts. Don’t add a third item. Finish this, and then you’re welcome to go back for a second helping. Now you can choose a third item. Prof. Wansink says doing this will likely prevent you from going back for more and more through the night because you’ve already had your fill of the things you wanted most on the buffet.
Meal for one
Restaurateurs are spoilt for choice when it comes to plate shapes, sizes and colours. At the DIVA Spiced in south Delhi, Dalmia uses black plates that are oval (13½ inches), rectangular (10½ inches) or circular (12 inches); as well as bowls (450ml) with chopsticks.
“Norms (for plate shapes and sizes) were for the 1990s, there are no norms for plating anymore," says Dalmia. “I might serve a starter in the centre of a 12-inch plate—it depends on what looks good to me aesthetically."
But restaurants follow rules around portion size. In a restaurant, a meal-for-one tag is its own external cue, and so the plate size matters less. At home, Dalmia says, she has trained her cook to make her two oat bran rotis with dough balls of 30g each, give or take 5g, with a small bowl each of vegetables and curd. That’s pretty specific as portion control goes.
Prof. Wansink says the fix would work for those among us who can keep a check on grams and millilitres, in much the same as calorie-counting works for people who can keep a tab on the joules they consume through the day. Unfortunately, this is only a minuscule portion of the population—for most of us, one bowl, irrespective of its volume, or one packet, regardless of the grammage, are key metrics to control portions.
Map your food thoughts
While different diets and fitness solutions seem to work for different people, there’s one fix whose efficacy most obesity specialists can agree on—keeping a food diary. Achal Bhagat, senior consultant, psychiatry, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi, suggests we take the journal a step further: Keep a food-thoughts diary.
We all have thoughts like, “Let’s have one more tea, or one more biscuit can’t hurt. Or, I don’t eat much; I don’t know why I’m fat." Dr Bhagat describes these as our “pro-obesity thoughts". The key, he explains, is to “discover them, and counter them". Keep track of three things for at least a month: what you eat, when you eat it and what you’re thinking at the time. Then go through the journal to figure out your eating patterns.
Dr Bhagat adds that restricting access is a good way of checking overindulgence: If you don’t have multiple bottles of alcohol in the home bar, you are less likely to have a tipple now and then. Same goes for ice cream in the freezer and candy in the pantry. “Small plates are another way of reducing access," he adds.