Is Your Portion the Right Proportion?

—by Kathryn Tempas

You may have heard of “mindfulness.” It’s the idea that we should pay attention to what we are doing at the present time; to really live in the moment instead of our minds being on the next item on the “To Do” list. This can relate to our food consumption too, as Americans often eat while
performing another task.

Dr. Brian Wansink, a food psychologist and professor at Cornell University, has written a book titled Mindless Eating—Why We Eat More Than We Think  (Bantam Books, 2006). I read it a few years ago, and I keep seeing him cited in magazines (he was in the October 2012 issue of Cooking Light). He has done some very interesting (and fun) research that I’d like to share with you. Maybe these observations will prompt you to try to practice more “mindful eating.”

Study #1   Ice cream social

Guests were invited to an ice cream social. They were given either a medium-sized 17–ounce bowl or a large 34–ounce bowl. They then served themselves from a variety of ice cream flavors and toppings. Bowls were weighed at the end of the dishing line. Those who had larger bowls gave themselves 31% more ice cream. And from other studies, if you serve yourself more, you eat more (you eat 92% of what you serve yourself). 

What you can do: Serve food on smaller plates/bowls. That way you trick your mind into thinking you’ve got a larger portion size. 

Study #2  Chocolate kisses

For Secretary’s Day, Dr. Wansink and colleagues put either a clear or a white dish filled with chocolate kisses on secretaries’ desks. The secretaries were instructed that the kisses were not for sharing. The study continued and every night the remaining kisses were counted and the bowls refilled. Those who had kisses in the clear dishes helped themselves to 71% more than those with white bowls. Seeing was more tempting.

In a related study, the bowl was placed on the desk, in a drawer, or six feet away. As before, containers of kisses were counted and refilled daily, this time for one month. How many were eaten? As you’d expect, the most were consumed when the chocolate was in sight, and the least when one had to get up and walk to get it. Having the candy dish six feet away gives people time to think... am I really hungry? Interestingly, this study was repeated with baby carrots, and yes, more were consumed from the bowl on the desk.  

What you can do: Keep the healthy food more accessible and the treating food out of sight.

Study #3  Bottomless soup bowl

Dr. Wansink and colleagues invited people to taste some soup in their test facilities. What the patrons didn’t know was that for half of them the soup bowls were connected under the table to a large cauldron of soup which, through some piping, refilled the soup bowl as it was consumed. There were also control bowls that did not refill. The researchers were trying to answer the question of whether people stop eating when they feel full, or when they see the bottom of the bowl?  Well, unfortunately, Americans tend to judge fullness by an empty plate, or, in this case, bowl. Those with the refillable bowl ate almost 3 times more than their tablemates without refillable bowls. It is also interesting to read about the challenges in setting up this experiment.

What you can do: Try to listen for your body’s cues to fullness, not seeing an empty bowl or plate. Contrary to your mom’s advice, you don’t really have to clean you plate, especially if you feel full.

Study #4  Popcorn at the movies

People were invited to the movies for a 1 p.m. showing (after lunch) and given either a large or medium popcorn and a soft drink, free. One note: the popcorn was 5 days old (quite stale). After the movie, people were asked how much they thought they consumed, and their popcorn buckets were weighed. People given the large bucket ate 53% more than those with the medium bucket. And it was stale popcorn! They would take a few bites, set it down, pick it up again and repeat. They were so conditioned to eating popcorn with a movie that it didn’t matter what the popcorn tasted like.

What you can do: pay attention to your food/activity links. Do you eat and watch TV? The longer the show, the more you’ll eat. Try to limit the bowl size or unlink the food and activity so that you realize what you are eating.

Other ideas from Dr. Wansink

1. Portion your snack into a bowl; don’t eat from the box.

2. Don’t deny yourself. Yes, have an “unhealthy” snack, but after you eat a piece of fruit.

3. Instead of serving dinner family style where the serving bowls are readily available for seconds, plate your meal in the kitchen.

4. If you buy “warehouse” size boxes, repack in smaller sizes once home. Studies show you eat less when you serve yourself from a smaller box.

5. Be aware that restaurant portion sizes are large. Divide your meal into a “take-home” section right away to avoid eating the whole thing.

There are many more interesting studies you can read about in Mindless Eating, or check out the websites <www.mindless> or <>.  On both websites, under “videos,” you can see an interview and TED talk with Wansink. You can also take a quiz, get tips, and much more.

Yes, it’s easier said than done, but maybe if you make one change this month, then another next month, you will enjoy your food more as you are mindful of eating it, and perhaps keep extra pounds at bay.

[Kathryn has been a member of the co-op for many years. She is continually working on eating more mindfully. Her kids have heard the mantras “don’t eat from the box, put it in a bowl” and “don’t read while you eat.” We try, and so can you. Good luck!]