Thanksgiving is hands down one of the best days of the year. Showing gratitude and creating memories over a home-cooked meal with family and friends - what could be better? But for all of those health-conscious foodies out there (myself included), this food-centric holiday can also bring a dark cloud of internal conflict. The foodie voice inside your head may be telling you to “YOLO, let go of moderation for a day, and fully embrace the holiday”, while the health-conscious voice may be countering that argument, coaching you to “stay focused, practice self-control, and monitor your food choices”. These opposing voices can put a serious damper on the whole meaning of Thanksgiving. The good news? There’s a way to enjoy your favorite Thanksgiving fare without overdoing it, and without relying on deprivation. It’s called, “Slim by Design”.
Did you know...we make over 200 food decisions per day? (and on Thanksgiving, that number is sure to rise!). Of course, it doesn’t feel like we make 200 food decisions because many of these decisions are made subconsciously It turns out, our environment has a significant impact on these subconscious food choices - from the size of our plates, the color of our dishware, the shape of our drinking glass, all the way down to the dining room decor and ambiance.
Unfortunately, most of our food environments are often constructed in a way the promotes mindless overconsumption of low quality, nutrient-deplete foods. But what if we could renovate our environment in a way that silently nudges us toward healthier food decisions? Thanks to Dr. Brian Wansink & his team at Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, you can!
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to alter your food environment to work in your favor.
These subtle tweaks can reduce over-plating and over-consuming food up to 20-30%, without you feeling an ounce of deprivation.
The result: You walk away from a delicious Thanksgiving meal with a well-nourished body, a comfortably full belly, a heart bursting with gratitude, and a peaceful mind where your foodie and health-conscious ambitions can live in harmony.
Size Matters: Studies have found that consumers serve themselves 22% less food when using a 9” plate instead of a traditional 12” plate. Aside from the obvious fact that smaller plates simply have less surface area available, there’s actually more to it than what meets the eye. An optical illusion known as the Delboeuf effect can trick us into plating more food. Check out the image below...
Both plates contain dots of equal size, but the dot placed on the big plate appears much smaller than the dot placed on the small plate. Why? The amount of blank space between the plate and the dot creates an optical illusion called the Delboeuf effect: The more white space, the smaller the portion appears. The less white space, the bigger the portion appears. This phenomenon explains how consumers judge their portion sizes based on the amount of surface area covered by food. Studies have found that no matter the plate size, consumers prefer their plates to be 70-75% full - anything less than that appears to be a skimpy portion.
Perception & Satiation: Because the Delboeuf effect causes our food portions to appear larger and more abundant when served on a smaller plate, this perception bias also leads us to feel more satisfied with the meal, creating a higher post-meal satisfaction. In other words, because a portion served on a smaller plate appears bigger, we tend to feel more satiated after a meal when using a smaller plate than if we were to eat the same amount of food off of a larger plate.
*The Takeaway: Choose a small 9” plate: you’ll serve yourself less food, the portion will appear more generous, and you will feel more satiated and satisfied - the perfect formula for enjoying more of less!
Color & Contrast
The color of your plate can also create an optical illusion that causes “portion distortion”. A study asked consumers to serve themselves spaghetti with marinara sauce on a white plate and on a red plate of equal size. The results? The consumers served themselves larger portions when using the red plate. Why? The red plate and the red marinara sauce blur together, making it difficult for the human eye to gauge how much food is on the plate. To confirm these findings, the researchers repeated the same experiment, this time using pasta with white alfredo sauce. As predicted, this time the consumers served themselves 30% more pasta when using the white plate, as the low contrast between the white plate and the white alfredo made it difficult to distinguish the food from the plate.
*The Takeaway: To reduce portion sizes, choose a plate that creates the highest contrast between the plate and your food. Conversely, if you are looking to increase a specific kind of food group, choose a dish that creates a low contrast with your food. For example, if your goal is to increase your salad consumption, perhaps consider using a green bowl!
You guessed it - when it comes to utensils, size matters again! Using smaller utensils forces you to take smaller bites, and smaller bites means it is going to require more bites in total to complete the meal. This is doubly beneficial:
1) Taking smaller bites prolongs the duration of the meal, which allows for more time to digest and register your satiety level before going back for seconds.
2) Taking smaller bites increases satiety and satisfaction - the more bites you get to take, the more opportunity to chew, savor and enjoy your food!
*The Takeaway: Toss manners out the window. After all, we’re all friends and family right? Rather than following the formal utensil progression course-by-course, choose the smallest option and stick with it throughout the entire meal.
Feeling thirsty? Studies have found that we tend to give ourselves a bigger pour when using short and stout glasses versus a tall and slender glass of the equal volume. To prove this theory, Dr. Wansink and his team put our very own local Philadelphia bartenders to the test! Each bartender was asked to prepare 4 different cocktails, serving each cocktail in both a tall glass, and a short glass. The results? Across the board, the bartenders poured up to 30% more alcohol into the short and wide glass than when they prepared the drink using a tall and narrow glass. It gets better... the researchers shared the results with the bartenders and then asked them to repeat the drink order. Even after being informed of the “short glass bias”, the bartenders still ended up pouring more alcohol in the short glasses. The conclusion? Whether you are a “glass-half-full” or a “glass-half-empty” kind of person, the biases created from these optical illusions cannot be overcome by awareness and self-monitoring. The environment will fool us every time, even when we know it’s coming!
*The Takeaway: To increase water consumption, choose the largest glass you can find. As for your cocktails, if you are looking to keep consumption low, go for a tall and narrow glass. Drinking wine? Opt for a white wine glass which tends to be taller and more narrow than their wide-mouthed counterparts. Studies have found wine drinkers to pour 12% less wine when using a white wine glass.
How the meal is set up can also influence how you serve yourself and how much you eat. Studies have found that those who serve themselves from a counter or stovetop consumed 19% less food than those who sat at a table with the full spread sitting right in front of them.
*The Takeaway: Steer clear of family-style eating, and stick with buffet style for Thanksgiving!
Buffet Set Up
We’re all very familiar with the buffet boobytrap where we go through the line serving ourselves a little bit of everything so that by the end we are left staring at a very unbalanced and ambitious amount of food. To encourage more thoughtful and rational plating among your guests, try these tips:
Plate Placement: Strategically place the plates at the far end of the buffet line, forcing guests to walk by each dish as they go to fetch their plate. Doing a “drive by” will give everyone the opportunity to scope out their options, be proactive, and make more informed decisions on how they plan to allocate their plate’s real estate.
Order of Dishes: Place the vegetable-centric dishes towards the front of the line, as this encourage guests to commit their initial plate real estate to the healthiest choices right off the bat, which in turn, limits the amount of real estate available for those richer, more decadent dishes further down the line. One study showed that 86.4% of diners took fruit when it was offered first, while only 54.8% of diners took fruit when it was offered last.
Serving Bowls & Utensils: Here’s yet another example that good things come in small packages! Studies have found that consumers who served themselves from a 3 quart serving bowl served themselves 17% more food than those who served themselves from a smaller, 2 qt serving bowl. To prove that serving utensil size matters just as much, Dr. Wansink offered a handful of colleagues some ice cream. Half of the group was provided a small ice cream scoop, while the other half was provided a larger ice cream scoop. Despite the fact that these academic professionals study how the environment can influence food choices on a daily basis, they were still stumped by the serving utensil bias! The group given the bigger ice cream scoop served themselves 31% more ice cream - yet another example that proves awareness of the interplay between our environment and food choices is not enough, we simply can’t outsmart it! We can’t change our automatic ways, but we can change our environment.
*The Takeaway: Downsize serving bowls and serving spoons for the rice and indulgent dishes, but supersize serving bowls and serving utensils for nutrient-dense vegetable dishes and salads.
And last but not least, the dining atmosphere plays a major role in how we eat:
Dine in the dining room. That’s what it’s there for! Not an option? Dine in a room as far removed from the kitchen and facing away from the buffet line. Research shows those who kept serving dishes away from the dining table ate 20% less. You now what they say…”out of sight, out of mind”, or in the case of food: “in sight, in stomach.” If food at the table is a must, choose 1-2 veggie-centric dishes to bring to the table. When people are looking for seconds, the healthy choice will be the most convenient option - just an arm’s reach away!
Set the mood. Dim the lights, but not too much! Bright light (think fast food chains) promotes speed eating, while a softly lit room will encourage your guests to slow down and enjoy the meal. Avoid making it too dark, as studies have found dining in the dark creates a false feeling of “invisibility”, causing guests to overeat as if they are hidden and nobody is watching.
Play some beats. As for music, keep it mellow to encourage a slow and steady eating pace. This is not the time to jam out to your favorite HIIT tracks - save that for tomorrow’s post-thanksgiving workout!
Be sure to share these tips with your Thanksgiving host and all of your family and friends. Think of it as an act of kindness: the less food coma casualties, the better!
These hacks extend far beyond the Thanksgiving Meal. If you are interested in learning more about how to tweak your environment and become “Slim by Design”, check out Dr. Wansink’s book - it is filled with fascinating research as well as practical strategies of how to apply these findings to your home, school, workplace, and local restaurants.