In light of the new year and the cliché discussions of “What do you want to achieve in 2017?”, I decided to do a Google search on the most common new year’s resolutions. There seems to be a general consensus amongst the surveys that people have given most weight to this goal (even more so than to happiness, finance, relationships and travel): to lose weight/ eat healthier.
Paradoxically, the saying “to bite off more than you can chew” seems like something that is easily accomplished, in the context of food consumption. Larger packages, plates, serving bowls and food arrangements have been found to increase the amount a person serves and consumes by 15-45% .
Extensive findings in this field have established that environmental factors – especially the abovementioned ones – influence eating, because they increase consumption norms and decrease consumption monitoring . Increased consumption norm is the phenomenon in which we are perceptually convinced that the amount of food served is normal and reasonable, even if it is objectively larger than the regular serving. Naturally, the increase in plate size would mirror the increase in portion size, which in turn increases the availability of food. The fact that the average size of dinner plates have increased over the past century by 22% from 9.62 inches to 11.75 inches , while the obesity rate in America has increased 8-fold since 1900 , are testament to this upward trend that is unfortunately associated with a decline in good eating habits and thus health.
A study by Wansink, Painter & North (2004) elucidates this phenomenon . In their experiment, participants were asked to simply eat the soup from their bowl until they felt full. Participants were randomly assigned to Group 1 (in which they unknowingly ate from a ‘bottomless bowl’, created by attaching the bowl to a table with soup pumped from underneath, such that the bowl would be subtly refilled to the participants’ oblivion) or Group 2 (in which they ate from a normal-sized bowl). Participants who unknowingly ate from the self-refilling bowl consumed, on average, a staggering 73% more soup than participants who ate from the normal-sized bowl. When asked if they felt full, a common response was “How can I be full, I still have half a bowl left?”. This highlights that our eating behaviours are more driven by external cues (such as the visibility, size and accessibility of food), which can lead us to mindlessly turn a blind eye to our internal cues (such as hunger and satiety)  – ‘counting calories’ with our sight rather than with our stomachs, so to speak. This notion is substantiated by findings that people who are overweight are more reliant on external cues in determining their eating behaviour, while people within normal weight are more reliant on internal cues .
While overeating is influenced by environmental factors that have increased our consumption norms and decreased our consumption monitoring, the good news is that we can mitigate this dilemma by the converse: decreasing our consumption norms and increasing our consumption monitoring . Here are 10 research-based recommendations on how to take action – I hope it serves as some food for thought:
Decreasing our consumption norms
Size of packages, plates and portions
1. Just as consumption norms can be increased by larger serving sizes, you can reduce consumption norms by doing the opposite – plating your food into smaller bowls/ plates. This will likely reduce serving sizes, which reduces consumption, and therefore weight.
2. Keep in mind that while you can make the desirable choice of eating low fat foods, you can over-consume it until your caloric intake exceeds what you would have otherwise consumed from a regular non-low fat meal . With that, here is a fairly obvious yet understated consideration worth chewing on: it is important to be mindful of what you eat, as well as how much you eat.
3. Be wary of the horizontal-vertical illusion. For example, in bars, narrow highball glasses generally hold the same volume as short wide glasses, however even experienced bartenders are deceived into thinking that the latter holds less volume, leading them to pour an average of 29% more alcohol if it is served in the short wide glasses . Hence it may be beneficial to replace short wide glasses with tall narrow glasses at home.
Salience of food
4. As vision represents 80% of our perception , we can ‘manipulate’ the visibility of things in our environment in order to reduce mindless snacking on unhealthy foods. Place healthier foods at the front of the fridge or pantry, and less healthy foods towards the back. Also, keep the counter clear of foods, unless they are healthy. For example, replace the cookie jar with a fruit bowl. It can be just as peachy, if not better.
Size of food packages and portions
5. Repackage foods/ frozen goods into smaller containers. It also helps to pour foods into a small bowl or plate, rather than eat from the package.
6. Instead of stockpiling food on the counter or pantry, reduce their visibility and convenience by putting them into a cupboard or fridge right after purchase. You see, there is some truth in the old adage “Out of sight is out of mind”.
Increasing our consumption monitoring
Set goals and accountability
7. It takes at least 28 days to replace an unhealthy habit for a more desirable one. Create “The Power of Three Checklist” , by setting a calendar featuring a month’s worth of days, writing down the 3 personally relevant changes you would like to implement on a daily basis for that month, and ticking off each change at the end of each day. The checklist can be accessed here. Set up a system with someone who could provide regular support and encouragement, and with whom you can report your rate of adherence at the end of each week. Even if you are unable to implement all 3 changes every day, ticking off at least 35 boxes (out of the highest 90-93 possible checks in a month) would be enough to create a small but noticeable difference . The process of tracking change and progress is rewarding, which provides extra impetus towards reaching your goals.
Monitor caloric intake versus caloric expenditure
8. When presented with a plate of food, people of all sizes – including trained nurses and dieticians – were generally inaccurate in their estimation of the amount of calories contained . Fortunately, most products come with their nutritional information.
One of the determinants of weight is the proportion of caloric intake (calories from what you eat) to caloric expenditure (calories you have burnt through activity). Typically, if caloric intake exceeds caloric expenditure, weight gain occurs. And the converse – if caloric expenditure exceeds caloric intake, weight loss occurs. Monitoring this will allow you to be more mindful of each factor. These apps may be a fit choice for this: Lose It! or Noom Coach.
9. Eating one less bite every meal could save about 75 calories a day, which equates to weight-loss of around 8 pounds in a year. Also, drinking water gives you a full feeling without the calories.
Deliberately make healthier choices
10. For example, instead of going for the alcohol, opt for some oolong, if that’s your cup of tea.
Wishing you a fantastic 2017,
Constance H (Registered Psychologist)
- Wansink , B. (2006). Mindless eating — why we eat more than we think. New York: Bantam-Dell
- Wansink, B. (2010). From mindless eating to mindlessly eating better. Physiology & Behaviour, 100(5), 454-463. 3.
- McDermott, R. Epidemic obesity: where did it come from, what does it mean and where do we go from here? Retrieved from the University of South Australia Website: https://www.unisa.edu.au/Global/Health/Sansom/Documents/CRE/Epidemic%20obesity%20Public%20Lecture%20Cairns%20May%2021%202014.pptx.
- Wansink, B., Painter, J. E., & North, J. (2004). Bottomless bowls: why visual cues of portion size influence intake. Obesity,13(1), 93–100.
- Wansink, B., Payne, C. R., Chandon, P. (2007). Internal and external cues of meal cessation: the French Paradox Redux? Obesity,15(12), 2920–2924.
- Barkeling, B., King, N. A., Naslund, E., & Blundell, J. E. Characterization of obese individuals who claim to detect no relationship between their eating pattern and sensations of hunger or fullness. International Journal of Obesity, 31(3), 435-439.
- Wansink, B., van Ittersum, K. (2003). Bottoms up! The influence of elongation and pouring on consumption volume. Journal of Consumer Research, 30(3):455–463.
- Roberto, C. A., Larsen, P. D., Agnew, H., Baik, J., & Brownell, K. D. (2010). Evaluating the impact of menu labeling on food choices and intake. American Journal of Public Health,100(2):312–318.
- Matamalas, R. L., & Ramos, M. S. (2009). Marketing strategy of the supermarkets. Retrieved from http://hh.divaportal.org/smash/get/diva2:239801/FULLTEXT01.pdf
- Chandon, P., & Wansink, B. (2007). Is obesity caused by calorie underestimation? A psychophysical model of fast-food meal size estimation. Journal of Marketing Research, 44(1),84–99.