1 August 2010

Get the Scoop on Nutrition with Emma Stirling

The scoop on supersizes

Emma Stirling
Emma Stirling APD

It’s easy to blame our supersized food supply (think jumbo muffins and whopping burgers like the ‘Quad Stacker’) for our supersized waistlines. But when was the last time you had a good look at the portion sizes you serve up at home?

It’s been estimated that we typically make around 200 decisions about food each day and many of them, sub-consciously, encourage us to overeat. Dr Brian Wansink, Director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab is a lead researcher in the area of eating cues and author of Mindless Eating: Why we eat more than we think. According to Wansink portion sizes have increased with time. But he’s quick to point out that a key driver is the size of our crockery. His research estimates that an oversized plate can cause you to take an extra 20% or more without knowing it. Did you know that:

  • dinner plates are about 30% bigger than they were 50 years ago?
  • we serve ourselves more on big plates?
  • if you switch from a 12in (30cm) plate back to a 10in (25cm) plate you could lose 18 pounds (a bit over 8kg) in a year?
You see a standard cup of cooked rice fits perfectly in an individual blue and white Chinese bowl, but it can look like a tiny amount when plated in a glazed, modern stir-fry bowl.

But surely people are just taking more food because they feel hungry? Think again. One simple but startling study by the Cornell University team involved a bottomless soup bowl that secretly refilled from under the table as people ate. Study participants were brought in for what they thought was a free lunch of soup. According to Wansink, those with re-fillable bowls ate over 70% more soup, but did not report feeling any more full or satisfied. The more startling finding was that only two out of 62 participants realised the soup was being refilled. The majority responded with – how could they feel full when they still had half a bowl of soup left? It seems that many of us have lost the art of eating to appetite satisfaction or intuitively. So what’s the solution to this modern day dilemma?

Pouring cartoon
Reproduced with permission from Dr Brian Wansink, Director – Cornell Food & Brand Lab

‘Change your plate first. Change your habits later,’ says Wansink: In other words, start by assessing and changing your portion and crockery sizes at home, while you work at re-harnessing your hunger cues, slowing down your eating habits and eating mindfully. Here are some great tips to get you started tackling portion distortion:
  • Downsize your dinner plates from (rim to rim) 12in (30cm) to 10 in (25cm) tops. Plates with a colorful rim shrink the space to be plated with food.
  • Keep a measuring cup in your breakfast cereal canister so you are not tempted to over pour.
  • Switch to tall, thin glasses rather than squat glasses to give the illusion of more volume.
  • Use a retractable spaghetti measure to cook just the right amount for each person.
  • Pay extra attention when pouring drinks too. Such as drawing an imaginary line on that 5fl oz (150ml) mark on your wine glass.
Find out how to take the small plate challenge HERE.

To further illustrate how you need to take caution with portions, check out this video of my crockery and glassware at home HERE.

Emma Stirling is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and health writer with over ten years experience writing for major publications. She is editor of The Scoop on Nutrition – a blog by expert dietitians. Check it out or subscribe for hot news bites and a healthy serve of what’s in flavour.


Catherine Saxelby said...

Thank you Emma for a great summary of these fascinating mindless eating experiments by the very clever Prof Brian Wansink. Always can't quite believe that bottomless soup experiment. Such simple eye-tricks to help yourself to slightly smaller portions and therefore less food overall - and without any great suffering! I think your suggestions are effortless things we can all take on board. I love ideas that help us eat less without having to "go on a diet". Well done!

Sarah Fitzmaurice said...

Emma, your practical demonstration really got me thinking! I think I am part-aware - I often serve myself cereal in a very small bowl so I am not tempted to over-fill. You've made me reaslise though, that I am probably contributing to my husband's yo-yo-ing waistline by overcrowding his plate at dinnertime. Sometimes just to use up all of the meal I have made! Perhaps downsizing our plate-size is the answer. One possible issue though - downsizing might make us feel more free to go back for seconds!

Emma Stirling said...

Thanks Catherine and Sarah. Good on you Sarah for choosing the small bowl...I do this too with my kid's dessert...just one scoop of icecream in a blue and white Chinese bowl. However, be careful with dinner and hungry hubby, Dr Wansink has observed that anything smaller than a 10 inch plate, is likely to leave you feeling unsatisfied or wary of feeling hungry after the meal. Once you've downsized your crockery there are other tips too, like making sure you only plate once and not leaving brimming bowls of pasta on the table for seconds. You can even pop leftovers in storage containers before you sit down to eat. Happy cooking and eating. Emma

Daniela (UK) said...

I agree - the links to Emma Stirling and Brian Wansink are really helpful in highlighting how much we rely on our eyes to tell us what we are eating, rather than our stomachs. So difficult to distinguish between hunger and appetite. I remember an old saying, common when I was a child, which went: "His (or her) eyes are bigger than his belly", meaning someone was taking more food than they could eat. I think this has been turned upside down in modern times...

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