Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Little plates make full tummies. Better not throw away my daughters' old tea set.

Very recently, the Center for Nutrition Policy & Promotion (CNPP), a joint department shared between the Department of Agriculture and HHS, revealed their new icon for the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.  They took the bold step of throwing out the head-scratching food pyramid for something we can all relate to:  a plate.  On this plate, they have half of it dedicated to fruits and vegetables and the remainder dedicated to lean proteins and whole grains.  On a personal level, I like the new icon a lot and see it as a huge improvement over the old food pyramid.  Why?  Two reasons:

  1. I like what it says.  I really like the way that the more cutting edge advice in food choices is becoming pretty simple and common sensical:  focus on eating real foods that have real nutrition.  I am obviously biased as this is what PointsPlus is all about, and it reflects the way I eat (or at least aspire to) these days.  
  2. I like how it says it.  Call me odd, but I have never had occasion to serve my food on a serving dish laid out like a pyramid.  I've known about the food pyramid since its introduction almost 20 years ago, and it never once has caused me to re-think how I eat.  The plate on the other hand is something I definitely relate to.  Visualizing what I'm putting on my plate makes a lot of sense to me.  I also really like the basic message of filling half my plate with fruits and vegetables.  Nothing like a simple message to penetrate the severe bone density of my skull.  
However, there is another message of the dietary guidelines (and PointsPlus) that doesn't really find its way onto the new plate icon:  portion control.  How big a plate are we talking about?  Hopefully not a platter.  
I'm assuming that the Lego disciples were able to
make do with little Lego plates

There was a very amusing study published last year that looked at artistic renderings of the Last Supper over the past 1,000 years.  Using some sophisticated computer analysis comparing the size of plates and loaves of bread to the size of heads (I'm glad I wasn't in the paintings -- my gravity inducing noggin would have distorted the results), they were able to measure how artistic views of serving sizes had changed.  Lo and behold (pardon my religiosity), over the past millennium, plate sizes have increased an average of 66% with the biggest gains being scored around the year 1500.  I guess no one can blame Coke and Pepsi for that one.  

More recently (i.e., the 90's), plate sizes have increased from 10 inches to 12 inches, an increase of 20%.  Does this matter?  According to our new friend Professor Wansink (I'm starting to feel like his PR coordinator), it matters quite a bit.  Time for another game of human experimentation.  
  • Experiment #1:  At an ice cream social (the opposite of a Weight Watchers meeting), the researchers gave their test subjects either 17 oz bowls or 34 oz bowls.  Those who were given the larger bowls served themselves up 31% more ice cream.  When given a larger scoop to go with their great big bowl, they served up 57% more ice cream.  
  • Experiment #2:  Test subjects served a medium-sized hamburger on a smaller plate (a saucer) estimated their burger to have 18% more calories than when it was served on a regulation-sized plate.  
Basically, the point is that our eyes can get us in trouble as we use other objects to ballpark the size of our food.  Maybe this is why overly fancy restaurants are often accused of skimping on food:  they put normal portions on huge plates.  

For myself, I have two observations...
  1. Appetizers can be pleasant surprises.  I was recently at a lunch where I was on stage (in fact, being grilled -- pardon the pun) with a bunch of Wall St types.  They were at the lunch to hear about what we were up to, so that meant it was time for me to talk.  As a result, I didn't bother ordering a main dish, but instead I asked for an appetizer serving of tuna tartar.  It was a nice serving size, but was clearly an appetizer.  That said, it did look more impressive on its smaller dish.  Combine this with my having to talk non-stop, and I ended up feeling pretty satisfied after lunch and wasn't hungry again until dinner.  Moral of the story?  Talk more and order smaller sizes.
  2. I am not wired for empty plates.  It's the soon-to-be-starving, fight-or-flee caveman that lives inside my stomach that disallows me from doing anything other than cramming food on my plate.  My choice is either to fight this urge or simply to use a smaller plate.  The latter seems much easier than relying on will power.  Moral of the story?  Use salad plates.  
How many of you have reverted to using your grandmother's old china to solve this problem?  What else is working for you?




  1. I'm on a mission to rid my house of the large plates.. just don't tell my husband! :) Small plates make less food seem like so much more!

  2. I read Professor Wansink's book too, and while I'd like to think I'm smart enough not to fall into those traps he mentioned, the fact that I struggle with my weight makes me think perhaps I do. We downsized our dishes to some colorful, Made-in-USA luncheon plates and no one in the family complained. I also tend to take a salad or bread plate for my breakfast and lunch meals. We have many sized of bowls, so I try to take an undersized one. We'll see if this works...

  3. I use tiny plates, bowls, and forks/spoons. It takes me longer to eat and makes me realize when I am full earlier. I did a recent video blog post on it here: http://lapbandgalsjourney.blogspot.com/2011/06/kitchen-tour-vlog.html

  4. Our whole family regularly uses salad sized plates for all our meals. In fact, I now have to really think when the last time was we used regular dinner sized plates! Probably last summer when we last had corn on the cob. It's hard to fit a whole ear of corn on a salad plate with the rest of your meal!

    It think it's a great way to keep portions under control.

    Kelly H

  5. Like everyone else, I had heard the "use a smaller plate" dictum, but I pooh poohed it until I absorbed the explanation in the book--that the NORMAL serving looks that much SMALLER on the big plate. (If I dished out that 1/2c of mashed potatoes on the driveway, I wonder how much I'd have to add before I thought it was a normal serving?) So that, plus the night before I had only filled my large dinner plate only half at dinner and I was convinced I was still hungry afterwards.

    So, it has sunk in, and I am also in the market for a smaller dinner plate. My current salad plates would make me feel deprived.--L

  6. I use smaller plates at my apartment, but when I go home to visit my family, it's usually for a few weeks at a time, so I use one of the plates with sections made for little kids. Silly? A little, maybe. But I need all the extra help I can get when I'm not in control of my own cooking for 2-3 weeks!

  7. Large plates are even worse than you might think. A 20% increase in diameter leads to a bigger increase in area. Remember pi r squared? That 10" plate is 314 square inches, while the 12" plate is 452 square inches - it's 44% bigger.

    - Brian C

  8. I use a demitasse spoon and a tea saucer :) :) :) Okay. Not really. But I do have a very pretty small floral plate for lunch. Did I mention it's PRETTY. I really like it! And use a small glass plate for breakfast. Great in the microwave. My big red dinner plates have a big border and were gifts for Mother's Day -- does that make it okay?

  9. When I started WW in June, 201, I began eating my meals on salad plates. And, I also regularly order from the appetizer or "small plates" menu at restaurants or, if possible, the kids menu.

    And, if I have to eat 'fast food' like Chinese food to go, I ask for only 1 scoop of rice (instead of an entire bowl full) and 2 scoops of veggies.

    I finally kicked my Diet Coke habit but when I do allow myself a DC indulgence, I now get a small and not gigantor 32 oz.

    And, IF (and it is a big IF and I've only done it once in the last year) I allow myself an ice cream from Baskin Robbins, I get a junior scoop (and the NI for all scoops is right on their website).

  10. I weigh and measure my food. I use whatever plate is handy in my cupboard. I concentrate on eating slowly to get more enjoyment from the tastes, textures, and beauty of the food on my plate. (I also do not set my clock ahead to fool myself into thinking I'm late.)

  11. I LOVE ice cream (I believe we have that in common). I have recently been very faithful in using a custard sized ramekin as my serving bowl and measuring my ice cream. Then I take one of my children's left over toddler spoons and eat my ice cream with it. It is amazing how long the ice cream lasts this way and how much I actually enjoy it.

  12. My family and I always use salad forks. I would love to replace our dinnerware, but i can't find anything smaller than what we have. it's crazy how big silverware and dinnerware are now-almost comical.

    i have the same problem with wine and martini glasses. we use martini and wine glasses from the 1960s because they are a reasonable size.

  13. I have been using smaller plates and bowls since I joined in 2008. My problem is my wine glasses! I have mine from my wedding 27 years ago and they hold exactly 4 oz. - never use them! My new ones hold 8 oz!

  14. I find a smaller utensil more helpful than a smaller plate/bowl and the reason is what I call " whiplash eating" - consuming something so fast, with such ferocity, that I could pull a muscle in the process. The size of the plate barely registers. This life-long habit of inhaling whatever is in front of me - an apple or a steak, doesn't matter - overrides the visual cues. So I use an antique teaspoon ( they were called a "5 o'clock" spoons back in the 1890s ) - and it forces me to make a meal of whatever I'm eating, regardless of the size of the plate. For example, a normal serving of oatmeal
    ( 6 Points, with 1% milk ) takes a long time to eat this way, and it gives my brain a chance to register that I've actually had the experience of eating and that I'm full, or full enough. Otherwise, whether I use a doll-sized tea saucer or a hubcap, the food is gone before I even realize I've started eating.

    I don't know where this behavior comes from - I didn't grow up having to fight siblings for my share of dinner for example. And when I see someone else eating this way I find it vaguely repulsive. I do know that there is something fearful or desperate in this kind of behavior - like the Cossacks are coming and it's my last chance to eat before hiding in the woods. Whatever the reasons, and they are clearly as powerful as they are obsolete, that little spoon is an instrument of sanity.

    And by the way, no apologies necessary for acting as Wansink's publicist. Given the volume of advertising for junk food ( and I include items that are being marketed as "healthy" that have the nutritional value of dirt ), a few plugs for someone preaching sanity around our eating is more than welcome.

  15. I bought some pretty polka dot salad plates on sale from Pottery Barn a few years ago thinking they would be pretty at a party. Now, I use them almost every day for my food! It is a help to use the smaller plates!

  16. There is a great book called The nine-inch "diet"-- it isn't really a diet book, but a beautiful graphic representation of what the shift from 9" to 12" really means in terms of portion size. The book came about when one of the authors bought an old house and couldn't figure out why anyone would be dumb enough to build kitchen cabinets whose doors wouldn't close once the plates were stored inside. Eventually he had his "a-ha!" moment and realized that plates used to be much, much smaller. The book itself is shaped like a nine inch plate. Really fascinating, quick read.

  17. Since I've started my lifestyle change my family and I have been using salad plates at dinner time. The bowls we have are definitely too big and I find the kids plastic bowls are a perfect size for portion control. We plan on getting rid of our dishes and swapping them out for some new dishes that are much smaller - time for a change!

  18. I just posted a statement on a friend's wall earlier today about portions and how different they are once you begin to measure &/or weigh. Wow..what we put (or use to) on our plates should be a crime. I know for my family I have decided to purchase new dinnerware..I'm going For the square plates. I think there is less room to overcrowd!

  19. Hi Brian,

    I'm a WW evangelist and I love your blog posts, which I just discovered. You have a very engaging and entertaining way of writing and your honesty is incredibly refreshing.

    This current post was such a good reminder about portion size... I just went home to San Diego to visit my mom, who still has the same set of bowls and plates that I grew up with in the seventies. I could not believe how small the pieces appeared and that I actually grew up eating cereal out of those little shallow bowls. How did the heaping piles of Rice Krispies, milk and gobs of peanut butter stay in without overflowing? Mysteries of the universe. Thanks for the reminder about how big our plates have gotten and the suggestion to order off the appetizer menu.

    Rock on,


  20. When I started my weight-loss journey several years ago, I took a deep breath and gave away my wedding china (giant plates) and dug my grandma's dishes out of the basement. They're dainty and small. Perfect!

    Every so often I buy a new set of "kid" dishes from Target. In February, I got heart-shaped ones that are very hard to overfill!

  21. Indeed I have solved the problem by buying and using antique plates. They are certainly smaller and much nicer to use for every day!