Research: Recent studies show why we overeat—and offer practical clues on controlling the size of our meals, snacks and drinks.Over the past few decades, portion sizes of everything from pizza to bagels have swelled by an average of two to five times in America (Young 2006).
“Unfortunately, waistlines have followed suit,” says Lisa R. Young, PhD, RD, adjunct nutrition professor at New York University and author of The Portion Teller Plan (Three Rivers 2006). When researchers at the University of North Carolina analyzed data from food surveys conducted in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and the past decade, they concluded that the average daily energy intake of a U.S. citizen increased from 1,803 kilocalories (kcal) in 1977–78 to 2,374 kcal in 2003-06 (Duffey et al. 2011)—a rise of nearly 32%, and more than enough to contribute to our expanding collective girths.
For the most part, Young says, large quantities of cheap food have distorted our perceptions of what proper portions are supposed to look like. “We also view a heaping serving of food as a bargain,” she adds. The overload is happening everywhere—in fast-food restaurants, fine-dining establishments, coffee shops and even cherished cookbooks. In examining 18 recipes published in every edition of the iconic Joy of Cooking since it first appeared in 1936, Cornell University scientists found that average calories per serving haved jumped 63% in the past 70 years (Wansink & Payne 2009). Changes in serving sizes were determined to be a leading factor behind the increases.
Thankfully, there are strategies you and your clients can use to reclaim control of food portions. Whether you are ditching oversized dinnerware or being more mindful of what you are shoveling in, these tips can help prevent portions and waistlines from swelling.
Because we seem to eat with our eyes rather than our stomachs and tend to eat much of what we serve ourselves, Young says, serving meals and snacks on smaller plates can trick us into thinking we’ve eaten more. “Try serving main courses on salad-sized plates and your salads on main-dish plates,” adds Young. The Portion Plate (www.theportionplate.com) can help you visualize proper serving sizes for meats, grains, vegetables and fruits.
“Eating in front of the television takes your attention away from the food you are consuming because [the TV] acts as a distraction,” says Natalie Pearson, PhD, study co-author and research assistant at the school of sport, exercise and health sciences at Loughborough University, England. “This causes a lack of awareness of how much you are actually eating—[which] may lead to overconsumption.” Pearson also notes that the telly inundates you with advertisements for unhealthy foods, potentially influencing what you desire and consume.
In a separate study, at the University of Bristol, England, people who ate lunch while playing a computer game felt less full by the end than those who noshed undistracted, and gamers consumed about double the number of calories 30 minutes after the meal compared with the other group (Oldham-Cooper et al. 2011). If you eat while distracted, you’ll likely remember less about the food you consumed, which can leave you feeling hungrier later on.
The takeaway is simple: When you are eating, it’s important to focus on the food, not on your email inbox or your favorite sitcom.
Additional chewing also slows down the rate at which you take in food, which New Zealand scientists found can keep weight down (Leong et al. 2011).
Eating slowly and savoring food may also explain, in part, why rates of obesity are lower in France than in North America. A 2003 study reported that average American McDonald’s® customers spent 35% less time at the table than their French counterparts (Rozin et al. 2003). Scarfers, beware: Pacing yourself gives the gut and brain enough time to register satiety signals. Make it a goal at every meal to put down utensils after each bite and chew thoroughly. Do not grab the fork again until your mouth is completely empty. Chewing food thoroughly also leads to better digestion.
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- Using smaller plates, bowls and drink glasses can reduce how much you eat.
- Eating breakfast can control appetite all day.
- Watching TV while eating creates a distraction that causes you to eat more.
- The more you chew, the fewer calories you’re likely to consume.
- Cutting food into smaller bites can help you eat less.
- “Low-fat” foods often boost flavor with extra sugar, making calorie savings an illusion.
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Duffey, K.J., et al. 2011. Energy density, portion size, and eating occasions: Contributions to increased energy intake in the United States, 1977–2006. PLoS Medicine, 8 (6), e1001050.
Flood-Obbagy, J.E., & Rolls, B.J. 2009. The effect of fruit in different forms on energy intake and satiety at a meal. Appetite, 52 (2), 416–22.
Genschow, O., Reutner, L., & Wänke, M. 2012. The color red reduces snack food and soft drink intake. Appetite, 58 (2), 699–702.
Keogh, J., et al. 2011. Food intake, postprandial glucose, insulin and subjective satiety responses to three different bread-based test meals. Appetite, 57 (3), 707–710.
Leidy, H.J., et al. 2010. Food form and portion size affect postprandial appetite sensations and hormonal responses in healthy, nonobese, older adults. Obesity, 18 (2), 293–99.
Leidy, H.J., et al. 2011. Neural responses to visual food stimuli after a normal vs. higher protein breakfast in breakfast-skipping teens: A pilot fMRI study. Obesity, 19 (10), 2019–25.
Leong, S.L., et al. 2011. Faster self-reported speed of eating is related to higher body mass index in a nationwide survey of middle-aged women. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111 (8), 1192–97.
Li, J., et al. 2011. Improvement in chewing activity reduces energy intake in one meal and modulates plasma gut hormone concentrations in obese and lean young Chinese men. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 94 (3), 709–16.
Marchiori, D., Waroquier, L., & Klein, O. 2011. Smaller food item sizes of snack foods influence reduced portions and caloric intake in young adults. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 111 (5), 727–31.
Oldham-Cooper, R.E., et al. 2011. Playing a computer game during lunch affects fullness, memory for lunch, and later snack intake. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 93 (2), 308–13.
Page, K.A., et al. 2011. Circulating glucose levels modulate neural control of desire for high-calorie foods in humans. Journal of Clinical Investigations, 121 (10), 4161–69.
Payne, C., et al. 2010. Serve it here; eat it there: Serving off the stove results in less food intake than serving off the table. Food and Brand Lab, Cornell University. http://foodpsychology.cornell.edu/images/posters/serveofftable.pdf; retrieved July 26, 2012.
Pearson, N., & Biddle, S.J. 2011. Sedentary behavior and dietary intake in children, adolescents, and adults. A systematic review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 41 (2), 178–88.
Roe, L.S., Meengs, J.S., & Rolls, B.J. 2012. Salad and satiety. The effect of timing of salad consumption on meal energy intake. Appetite, 58 (1), 242–48.
Rozin, P., et al. 2003. The ecology of eating: Smaller portion sizes in France than in the United States help explain the French paradox. Psychological Science, 14 (5), 450–54.
St-Onge, M.P., et al. 2011. Short sleep duration increases energy intakes but does not change energy expenditure in normal-weight individuals. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 94 (2), 410–16.
St-Onge, M.P., et al. 2012. Sleep restriction leads to increased activation of brain regions sensitive to food stimuli. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 95 (4), 818–24.
Van Kleef, E., Shimizu, M., & Wansink, B. 2012. Serving bowl selection biases the amount of food served. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 44 (1), 66–70.
Wansink, B, & Chandon, P. 2006. Can “low-fat” nutrition labels lead to obesity? Journal of Marketing Research, 43 (4), 605–17.
Wansink, B., & Payne, C.R. 2009. The joy of cooking too much: 70 years of calorie increases in classic recipes. Annals of Internal Medicine, 150 (4), 291–92.
Wansink, B., van Ittersum, K., & Painter, J.E. 2006. Ice cream illusions bowls, spoons, and self-served portion sizes. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 31 (3), 240–43.
Young, L.R. 2006. The Portion Teller Plan: The No-Diet Reality Guide to Eating, Cheating, and Losing Weight Permanently. New York: Three Rivers.
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