May 09, 2007

Portion Control and Being An Idiot

There are people out there who have no trouble at all with portion control, but not many. For most of us, there is a big difference between what we need to eat, and what we want to eat. And a lot of the time, unless we're really strict with ourselves, want is going to win out over need.

Here's one strategy that may help: Be an Idiot.

Often you can fool yourself on portion size as easily as you can fool a two year old child. There's even Actual Scientific Research on this which will be discussed below. In the meantime, Crabby will give you an example.

Do you remember from psychology class how there's a stage in child development where kids think that a tall, skinny glass has "more" juice in it than a short fat glass, even when they watch someone pour the same liquid from fat glass directly into tall glass?

Well Crabby is every bit as naive as a toddler. She used to drink her morning orange juice in a big fat tall glass. Eventually she realized she was drinking about 16 ounces of juice--well over 200 calories. What to do? She couldn't just fill up the glass part way because it looked too short. She felt deprived. It was only half a glass of orange juice.

So Crabby bought a new set of tall skinny 8 ounce juice glasses, and now she doesn't feel deprived, because she gets a full glass of juice every morning. It's dumb, but it works.

So a couple of guys at University of Pennsylvania, Andrew Geier and Paul Rozin, actually get paid to study this stuff. They've conducted studies on "unit bias"--how people decide that a particular portion of food is the right amount, and how that influences how much food people eat.

In one study, they put a large mixing bowl of M&M's at the concierge desk of an apartment building. Below the bowl hung a sign that read "Eat Your Fill" with "please use the spoon to serve yourself" written underneath. (Had she lived in that building, Crabby would no doubt have found many reasons she suddenly needed to visit the concierge's desk).

The tricky researchers sometimes set out a small spoon for people to use, and sometimes a large one.

When there was a small spoon, most people took a single scoop, even though the sign encouraged them to "eat their fill." But when the spoon was larger, they'd take a much bigger scoop and eat twice as many M&M's.

"It is more than just people afraid of appearing greedy," said one of the sneaky scientists. "They didn't know they were being observed. We have a culturally enforced 'consumption norm,' which promotes both the tendency to complete eating a unit and the idea that a single unit is the proper amount to eat."

Crabby swears she saw an even more amusing M&M study which she can't find anymore, which may well be by the same sneaky scientists, because how many researchers are out there studying M&M consumption? Anyway, the study said that if you give people a bag of M&M's all the same color, they won't eat nearly as many as if it's a multicolored bag. More variety can trigger people to eat more, even though they must know they're all the same flavor.

So: be an idiot like Crabby. Use skinny juice glasses, small spoons, and divide your M&M's up so you're just eating one color at a time.

Is anyone else this dumb? Have any good tricks to share?


  1. I use any psychological trick that helps me. Don't worry about how silly it seems.

    As far as portion control goes, it's not easy. For me, the thing that helps the most is planned snacking on healthy foods. This takes away the feeling of starving by the time I get to a meal. Otherwise I eat too fast and stuff myself before I realize it.

  2. Use smaller plates so less food appears to be more because it fills up said plate. Same principle as the glass.
    Must confess, except for brekkie which goes on a smaller plate, I don't use any psychological tricks on myself. Unless you count hypnosis.
    I had to autosuggest that I'd walk past potato chips in the store and that I didn't need them. I had the sense to give myself an "out" though. I said I could have them on special occasions. Yet another reason why I'm so excited about my road trip...

  3. I am soooooo dumb. It totally works on me. My husband is dumb too. I have even resorted to mini bowls. They are quiet small but, I fill them very full and I feel like I got enough.

  4. Ha! What a great post. It's playing dumb in order to be, in the long run, smart!

    And I agree that the key to portion control is, in large part, finding ways to avoid feeling deprived.

  5. Have just had a programme on NZ televison about this very topic. Hubbie and I eat off smaller size plates and it does help.

    Anyone for a very tiny plate of cream filled apple donuts?

  6. Thanks everyone!

    Welcome, half man! The healthy snacking is definitely a smart idea. And thanks for stopping by!

    Leah--we'll miss you while you are on your road trip. (And in fact my next post will be on Road Trips, in your honor). I'm very curious about the effectiveness of hypnosis on Potato Chip Cravings and will have to engage your expert advice at some point.

    Samantha--yay, another dumb-dumb like Crabby who can fool herself by playing with containers! I like the idea of mini bowls.

    And Thomma Lyn, I think you've hit on the key concept, which is avoiding feeling deprived. (Of course sometimes the only way to avoid that feeling is to totally pig out on a hot fudge sunday, but on good days, a skinny glass of juice will do it).

    Oooh, Dawn, if it's a really tiny plate of cream filed apple donuts can I fill it up twice?

  7. Hide the snacks. Out of sight really is out of mind.

    A lot of these tricks and subconcious biases are found in Brian Wansink's Mindless Eating. He did the unit test with bartenders estimating shots. These people pour drinks for a living, right? They ought to be pros. They were terrible (like everyone else) and filled the short squat glasses more than the tall skinny ones.

    I use the smaller plate thing, too. I also measure portions out w/ actual measuring cups and spoons. My friends and coworkers think I'm a bit nuts, but I've lost 30 lbs counting calories and watching portions. It's a way of retraining your brain.

    And I still eat too much if a whole bowl of popcorn is left in front of me. (sigh)


  8. Thanks Hawk, some great information there. Really appreciate your visit.

    I'll have to check out Mindless Eating, it sounds like a great place for me to steal tips for the blog. (With proper credit given, of course).

    I think the measuring makes a lot of sense--because eyeballing almost always means cheating, at least for me. I guess it depends on how strictly you're watching portions. We've got one of those little scales at home, and its really helpful. Sounds like if you've lost 30 lbs, you're definitely doing something right! Congratulations on that.

  9. Well I'm on a new diet. I call it the 'Oregon Diet'.

    I can no longer have beer and pizza on the same day. Having a cold one with a movie? No pizza. Having a slice with a flick? No beer.

    This is specifically pointed for us Oregonians, because we have multitudes of movie theatres that sell microbrew beer and dailymade pizza in the lobby.

    Sigh. Diets are so hard.

  10. Hi sharon!

    Gosh, this sounds harsh. Beer and pizza go together so well! (And if Oregon is really advanced enough to serve both in their movie theaters, I may have to seriously consider relocating there.)

    So what if you have no beer or pizza one day (having, say, a nice steak and some Cabernet instead), and even eat a big pile of broccoli for good measure. Could you then have beer and pizza with a movie the next night? Seems reasonable to me!

    Thanks for coming by and hope to see you around again!

  11. My boyfriend's dinner plates are massive. They're larger than the average Frisbee. Since I can't very well bring my own plates every time he cooks, I went to Target and bought a child's divided plate. It has one main section and two smaller ones. My rule is the largest section has to be full of vegetables or grains, and the smaller sections can have the protein and less healthy side dishes. I'm made fun of, of course, but it works.

  12. Hi Katherine,
    What a great idea! For some reason I found it really disappointing that for all that money the Diet Plate didn't even have physical dividers, just painted lines. But I never thought of a child's plate--a much more reasonable alternative and kind of fun too.

  13. Totally agree with you here, Crabby, I was posting about portion control myself today -- -- and I am SO easily fooled. Small bowls and plates are definitely the easy way forwards...


  14. On a related track, when you're headed for the munchies bowl, remind yourself that there's something you really want to do first but you'll be back in an hour. Or stop and remember that if you wait until this afternoon or tomorrow morning it will taste so much better because you'll be hungrier. In other words, give yourself permission to have the food, but delay taking it. If your memory is like mine, you'll forget about it until you have to do it all again; in any case, you'll have delayed or eliminated one snack time.

  15. Great Post! I agree 100%. We tend to eat with our eyes..we will eat the portion that is set before us. It can be small or large, but the catch is that the small portion and the large portion will fill us up just the same. So why overeat?

  16. Plates have been getting bigger over the last twenty years, and so have portions,we were all brought up to clear our plates. I.m going to have my dinner off tea saucers from now on.

  17. O3 World has a great product out called FORM. It's a swelling agent that you take a half hour to an hour before a meal so you're fuller faster. So instead of worrying about your portion sizes, all you have to do is listen to your body; when you're full, stop eating.

    My O3 World


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