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Will Downsizing Your Dishes Supersize Your Success?

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Updated February 15, 2014

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Smaller dishes, smaller waist?

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You have probably heard that using a smaller plate may help you with portion control, but it's easy to shrug off that advice -- it just doesn't sound like it would really work. (No matter what dish you use, you would surely notice if you were eating more than usual right?)

Think again. A study called "Ice Cream Illusions: Bowls, Spoons, and Self-Served Portions," makes the smaller-dish/eat-less theory definite food for thought: Even nutrition experts were prone to dish out more food when their bowls or serving utensils were oversized.

Researchers at Cornell University hosted an ice cream social to which they invited faculty and staff and graduate students from the university's nutrition department. Participants were randomly given either a small bowl or a large one, and a small or large serving spoon. Each participant then spooned out some ice cream. As the participants filled out a survey asking how much they believed they had portioned out for themselves, the researchers weighed their bowls.

The results? The participants using the larger bowl ate just over 30% more than those who used the smaller bowl. And despite the fact that they helped themselves to a significantly larger serving size, they didn't think they dished out any more than the others.

Interestingly, the participants who used the large serving spoon got more ice cream, too -- around 15% more than the others -- even if they used the small bowl. Less surprisingly, those who were given both the large bowl and the large spoon ate a whopping 57% more ice cream than those with the smaller bowl and spoon. These results lead to researchers to identify the dishes and serving spoons as "consumption cues."

Lead author Brian Wansink, Ph.D., who specializes in the psychology of food choices, said, "The fact that even they [the nutrition experts] end up being tripped up by these cues just helps to show how ubiquitous and how subversive these illusions can be."

Since restaurants are often blamed for Americans' tendency to over-do portions, Koert van Ittersum, a professor of marketing at Georgia Tech who also worked on the study, suggested that restaurants could start using smaller dishes, too. But, this practice would have its limits. "If people still feel hungry after they've finished their plate, you [restaurateurs] have a serious problem," van Ittersum said. In other words, despite that fact the we, as customers, want to eat more reasonable portions, we wouldn't be happy if left hungry, either.

The researchers advise that cues such as dish size are easy to alter. By using smaller dishes, we can easily avoid "accidentally" eating too many calories. "If you want to lose weight, use smaller china and flatware," van Ittersum advised. So, if you haven't taken that "downsize your dishes" advice to heart yet, it's time to think about buying a new set of dinnerware!

Here are some more practical portion control pointers:

  • Split dessert with a friend.
  • Portion half your restaurant meal into a to-go box before you start eating.
  • Learn how to "eyeball" basic portion sizes.
  • Purchase single-serving size snacks.
  • Purchase snack-sized plastic baggies and portion out standard serving sizes of foods you tend to overeat.
  • Never eat directly from a food package.

Sources:

Dixon, Brad. Press Release: Georgia Institute of Technology: News Room: Smaller Bowls and Spoons Key to Eating Less 2 August 2006. 12 October 2007.

English, Taunya. Health Behavior News Service. Size Matters Smaller Bowls and Spoons May Curb Consumption 25 July 2006. 12 Oct 2007.

Wansink B, van Ittersum K, Painter J. "Ice Cream Illusions: Bowls, Spoons, and Self-Served Portion Sizes". American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2006;31(3):24–243.

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