Health experts are urging us to downsize our children’s plates so that their food servings appear more fulfilling, but can this really make a difference?
Saying that it is a national “tragedy” that the UK has so many 11-year-olds who are overweight and obese, Head of Public Health England, Mr. Duncan Selbie, has called on parents to take simple, pro-active steps to helping their children, and the government to do its share. His recommendations include exercising as a family by going out on bike rides, getting soft-drink manufacturers to cut the sugar in their products, and also using smaller plate sizes.
Selbie, speaking to Britain’s Telegraph, said that there is a psychology that we impress upon young children that they must clean their plates. This, while a good policy when eating vegetables and nutritious food, can lead to children eating more than they should of calorie dense and bad foods. A simple way to combat this, he offered, is to give children smaller plate sizes. The plate will look fuller, so the children are unlikely to think that they’ve been shortchanged on portions, and could lead to them eating less overall.
The recommendation sounds like a good one, but what does science say about little tricks like this? Well, perhaps surprisingly, it really might help and the reason why can be explained by something we might already be familiar with.
If you are a puzzle enthusiast or someone who enjoys reading about how our brains trick us, you’ve probably come up against the Delboeuf illusion. First documented by Belgian Mathematician and Experimental Psychologist Joseph Remi Leopold Delboeuf around about 1865, Delboeuf found that if you take two identical shaded circles, and then surround one with a narrowly fitting circle and one with a larger spaced circle, the first with the narrow fitting circle will appear to have a larger shaded circle in its middle than the other, despite the fact that the two are identical:
This, research has shown, can help explain why larger plate sizes can lead us to feeling like we need to cram more food on our plate to feel fuller when, in reality, a smaller plate size could have tricked us into stopping eating long ago — and we’d have felt just as satisfied. Market analysis shows that our plate sizes have increased dramatically over the past hundred years, and this could in part be contributing to our nationally increasing waistlines.
Interestingly, and beyond just cutting the calories we’re consuming, there’s a way we could use this illusion to make sizable health gains.
Researchers from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab believe that we should tailor our plate and bowl sizes to the precise foods we’re eating. For instance, salads rich in those all important leafy green vegetables should be served on a larger plate, encouraging people to have second helpings. Meanwhile, foods like pasta, and other calorie dense foods, as well as desserts and the like, should be offered up on smaller plates, tricking our minds into thinking that we’ve had much larger servings than we really have and discouraging us from going in for that second helping.
Let’s also not forget that the color of our dinnerware can also have an impact on our enjoyment of our food. Other psychological tricks that are known to have an impact on our heating habits include how brightly lit a room is — that ambiance in restaurants isn’t just to make things more romantic, but to get you to eat more — and how quickly we eat.
Now it’s important to stress that we shouldn’t be overly emphasizing all these small details because doing so, especially where children are involved, can inadvertently set-up unhealthy anxieties about eating. However, what this shows is that there are simple tricks we can employ, with very little effort required, that could help support our healthy eating goals and, crucially, put our kids on the right path for life-long health.
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