Food For Thought

Salt, school lunches and the intersection of food, wellness and public policy.

Five Ways to Unconsciously Cut Calories

Tricking your brain so you'll eat less

For those sick of counting calories and not losing an ounce of weight, there may be an easier way to drop some poundage.  Environmental cues influence how much and how often we eat.  By changing the cues, we can unconsciously cut how much we munch.

Remember the old adage “Your eyes are bigger than your stomach?” The human appetite is influenced by visual cues, making us pitiful judges when it comes to determining when it's time to put down the fork…or the potato chips. Clinicians often tell people to eat less but don’t give them the tools to do it easily.  Here are five ways to trick your brain and your appetite:

  1. Change the Dinner Plate Color:  Research shows people will eat more if there isn’t a color contrast between the food and the plate: think spaghetti with marinara sauce on a red plate. In the study, diners were served red pasta on a red plate and then on a white plate. Those who received the same portion of pasta and sauce on a white plate thought they were eating a larger portion, even though the portions were identical.  White plates provide great contrast unless you’re eating chicken Alfredo or mashed potatoes…then the contrast disappears.  A good everyday plate choice is BLUE.  There are no blue foods….well maybe corn chips…but most foods pop on a blue plate.
  2. Use Smaller Plates:  Today’s average dinner plate is 12 inches in diameter compared with the 9-inch dinner plates our grandparents used.  Fill-your-plate syndrome can drive us to eat more.  Save your dinner plate for salads and serve entrees on salad plates. By switching your plates, you will likely eat more veggies and less of the high-calorie entrees.
  3. Portion It Out: Who hasn’t bought an industrial size bag of chips from a warehouse store?  Eating from a seemingly bottomless bag can result in serious weight gain. Control your urge to eat the whole bag at once by putting a few chips. or your snack of choice, into a small bowl or container. By pre-portioning, you signal your brain to stop eating once the bowl is empty.  A small, blue plate or bowl might be just the ticket to curb snacking.
  4. Out of Sight Inconvenience:  They aren’t called “convenience foods” or “convenience stores” for nothing.  In our busy society, convenience rules and this includes snack foods.  Manufacturers have caught on by providing unwrapped versions of certain candies--think bite-sized mini versions of a popular chocolate covered peanut butter cup--making it easier to grab a handful without the inconvenience of unwrapping.  Nouveau re-sealable packaging further enhances on-the-go snacking. To reduce the urge to snack, make snacking inconvenient:  Buy the wrapped versions of your favorite candies or snacks and keep the snack out of sight. A recent study showed that clear desktop candy jars without lids were the source of significant calories for workplace snackers.  By simply by hiding the jar in a drawer or switching to an opaque, lidded jar, workers ate fewer candies and fewer calories.
  5. Change Your Glass:  Alcohol can be a source of a lot of empty calories, but one can tame alcohol intake by switching the type of glass.  British researchers showed that people who consumed beer from a straight-sided glass vs. a curved glass, drank less alcohol.  Although both vessels held the same amount of beer, the curved glass appeared to hold less, so patrons imbibed more. 

Other factors that influence what and how much we eat include the ambiance.  Eating in a nice environment, free of noisy chatter under gentle light, reduces appetite signals.  So the next time you have dinner planned, break out the blue salad plates and straight-edged glasses and dine under the flattering glow of candlelight, you might be surprised how much your diet can benefit from a few cue-altering changes.

Martina M. Cartwright, Ph.D., R.D., is an adjunct professor of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Arizona and an independent biomedical consultant.

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