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Noyes Health / About Noyes / News / Article

Plate sizes and Our Waistlines

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

I am a huge Downton Abby fan.   If you are not a fan, Downton Abbey is PBS period series that focuses on the lives of an aristocratic family and their cadre of servants in early 20th century England.   The producers of the show have made a great effort to be historically accurate in the smallest of details such as tableware.  As I was watching the show this past week, my eye caught the size of the wine glasses and plates on the table.  It struck me that everything looked substantially smaller than our current tableware.  The wineglasses looked nothing like the currently popular gold fish bowls that pass as wine glasses.  I could not help thinking that this was somehow significant.  My curiosity led me to the research of Cornell University professor, Brian Wansink.  Mr. Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating, Why We Eat More Than We Think,” discovered that indeed our plates are bigger today than 50 years ago – 12 inches compared to 9 inches.  It turns out; our portion sizes are bigger too.  This is significant in a country where 54% of adults aim to finish everything on their plates at every meal.   It is equally significant in light of the current obesity epidemic. According to the CDC, in 1996, the obesity rate in the US was between 10 and 19%.  Twenty years later no state in the union has a rate less than 20% with 18 states coming in at 30-35%.  Furthermore, three states currently have rates that top 35%.   So what lessons can we learn from Wansink and others in the food research world.

Professor Wansink’s research shows that large bowls, plates, and glasses lead to more eating all for the same reason – they make portions look smaller.  Our brains think there isn’t as much food because the size of the plate dwarfs the food. What is truly fascinating, however, is the connection between the serving sizes and the serving dishes.  The Cornell Food and Brand Lab found that people feel equally full whether they eat off a small plate or large plate. (i.e., whether they consume 300 or 600 calories) The reality, however, is that most of our plates are larger with bigger portions and even people who think they are aware of portion sizes and caloric intake will often inadvertently consume more calories.  The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports the average portion sizes have grown so much over the past 20 years that sometimes the plate arrives and there's enough food for two or even three people on it. Growing portion sizes are changing what Americans think of as a "normal" portion at home too.  This is called portion distortion.   For example, 20 years ago, the average bagel was 3 inches in diameter and had 140 calories.  Today the average bagel is 6 inches wide and comes in at 350 calories.  

In addition, the calorie/serving size link can be seen in cookbooks. “The Joy of Cooking,” has changed drastically over the years.  The Cornell crew looked at recipes in seven editions of the famous cookbook spanning 70 years for serving size and caloric levels. According to a 2009 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, “Over the period of time and cookbook editions, 18 recipes were continuously published in every edition. In 14 of these 18 recipes, the number of calories in the recipe increased by a whopping 43.7%. Serving sizes have increased gradually throughout the years and cookbook editions. The largest jump is a 33.2% increase in portion serving sizes since 1996 alone. This expanded portion size helps explain why calories per serving have increased from an average of 168.8 calories to 436.9 calories, which is a 63% increase in calories per serving. The chicken gumbo recipe for example, went from making 14 servings at 228 calories each in the 1936 edition, to making 10 servings at 576 calories each in the 2006 version.”  

Being aware of tableware sizes and portions is a good place to start on the road to healthy eating.  The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and the Cornell Food and Brand lab suggest the following tips when faced with large portions:

  1. Restaurant eating – Split an entrée with a friend or ask the server to put half the meal in a doggie bag before it’s brought to the table.

  2. Eating at home – To minimize second and third helpings, serve reasonable portions on individual plates, instead of putting the serving dishes on the table.  Keep the extra across the kitchen out of reach. Get rid of your large plates and glasses.  Antique and second hand stores are great places to find smaller plates and glasses (often at a better price than new!)

  3. TV snacking – Instead of eating out of the bag of chips, box of crackers, or container of ice cream, put an actual serving size per the label in a bowl.

  4. Between meal snacking – Snacking is good for you.  It can keep you from overeating at meals.   Grab fruit, veggie sticks, salad, nuts, or seeds.  

  5. In the kitchen – Store tempting items like cookies and chips out of sight; place them on very high or very low shelves or behind something else. (better yet, buy them only occasionally as a treat)  Replace the candy bowl with a fruit bowl on the counter.  Put healthier items like brown rice, oatmeal, or quinoa at eye level in the cupboard.  

Restaurant eating – Split an entrée with a friend or ask the server to put half the meal in a doggie bag before it’s brought to the table.

Eating at home – To minimize second and third helpings, serve reasonable portions on individual plates, instead of putting the serving dishes on the table.  Keep the extra across the kitchen out of reach. Get rid of your large plates and glasses.  Antique and second hand stores are great places to find smaller plates and glasses (often at a better price than new!)

TV snacking – Instead of eating out of the bag of chips, box of crackers, or container of ice cream, put an actual serving size per the label in a bowl.

Between meal snacking – Snacking is good for you.  It can keep you from overeating at meals.   Grab fruit, veggie sticks, salad, nuts, or seeds.  

In the kitchen – Store tempting items like cookies and chips out of sight; place them on very high or very low shelves or behind something else. (better yet, buy them only occasionally as a treat)  Replace the candy bowl with a fruit bowl on the counter.  Put healthier items like brown rice, oatmeal, or quinoa at eye level in the cupboard.  

To learn more about portion control and everyday helpful hints, go to http://mindlesseating.org  or https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/eat-right/portion-distortion.htm.  

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or 585-335-4327.  

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