General Health,Nutrition

Environment and Eating (Part 2)

This is part 2 of 2 in a series about environmental influences on health. Read Part 1 on activity.

When people talk about improving their health, it’s often described in terms of individual goals and accomplishments. My friend and I started working out. Or I’ve been eating out less and cooking at home.

But one of the largest factors in your health is also one you can’t easily control. Your environment.

The world around us can actually work against us. Small cues in our daily life can greatly influence how you eat and how much activity we get. When it comes to healthy eating, you might not be able to change the environment at restaurants or grocery stores, but you can start by making small changes in your own home.

While it might seem crazy, or even insulting, your personal self-control with food can actually be manipulated by things as innocuous as color or even size. Not of your food, but of your plates!

The larger your plate, the more you will tend to serve yourself. This was illustrated in several experiments. One involved buckets of popcorn where participants with larger buckets ate much more than those with smaller buckets, even though they reported eating the same amount. In addition, when given access to endless food, people have difficulty gauging how much they ate. In the famous endless soup-bowl experiment, people with the refilling bowl ate more than people with a regular bowl, but reported eating the same amount and were just as full.

Our brains perceive food on a large plate different than a small plate

This basis for this problem lies in how our brains perceive size.  For example, in the image to the right, this circles in the center are the same size but look different due to their surroundings. Another complicating issue is that the average size of a dinner plate has increased by 30% in just a few decades. And a larger plate means a lowered ability to tell how much food is enough food.

Ultimately though, your eating habits relate more to how much energy you use during the day, how hungry you are, and your attitudes towards eating, as this study found. But plate size can confound the normal factors that tell you how much to eat and let you know when you’re full. Also, don’t forget that these studies were conducted when participants had an large (sometimes endless) supply of food. When cooking and plating at home, smaller plates can keep you from overindulging.

In addition to the size of the plate, the color of the plate can also affect how much food you put on it. In particular, when the plate color matches the color of the food, you tend to serve yourself more, because it’s harder to tell what’s on the plate. Luckily, you can use this trick of the mind to help you eat more healthy veggies (for example, try piling salad on green plates)!

Finally, which type of utensil you use can also influence how much food you eat. Studies found that people with lower BMIs were more likely to use chopsticks. By reducing how convenient it is to move food to the mouth, you end up taking smaller bites, consuming less food overall, and slowing down how fast you eat. So by this logic, perhaps smaller forks would also work the same way?

Not so! As odd as it sounds, using a bigger fork can actually lead to eating less food and feeling fuller. This study found that participants who used bigger forks ultimately ate less of the food on their plates. The bigger fork combined with having more food with each bite allowed participants to clearly see the progress they were making in their dish and also feel as if they were satisfying their hunger. In contrast, smaller forks made people feel as if they were not progressing.

The first step to making sure the environment doesn’t get the better of you: being aware! When cooking, pay close attention to how much food you are preparing. If necessary, buy a kitchen scale so you can precisely measure ounces of food before and after you cook it. When plating, choose smaller plates of a contrasting color from the food and use bigger forks (or chopsticks). Be aware of how much food you are putting on the plate. To avoid temptation, immediately refrigerate or freeze the remaining portion. In addition, if you have a bad junk food habit, get the food out of the house! Bad eating habits in parents are often passed on to children as well.

Learn more about how to eat the right foods.