The Best Way To Lose Weight Is To Cut Portions, Study Says. But It's Not So Simple.
There are very few diet “tricks” that actually work. Eating less food is by leaps and bounds the most effective method for weight loss, but it’s obviously one of the hardest, since not only do we enjoy food but we often crave it, which overrides our better sense. A new paper from the University of Cambridge suggests that cutting portions by using smaller plates (or if you're a food maker, producing smaller packages) would address much of the issue in the very simplest way. And they certainly have a point. Serving sizes have grown hugely over the last several decades, and just recalibrating what we think of as normal would go a long way toward addressing the obesity epidemic. This is certainly not a bad idea, since it speaks to the psychology of eating, but there's another element at play – biology.
First, here’s what the authors suggest. People tend to eat what’s in front of them, and studies have found that people, not surprisingly, eat considerably more when they’re given larger plates and cups. It's not quite clear why this is the case, but the brain seems to register a full plate as a single unit whether that plate is large or small. Therefore, the researchers suggest that methods like reducing the default plate and drink size, eliminating the largest package sizes of junk foods and soft drinks, and stopping the practice of discounting the largest sized items would go a long way to help people lose weight, or not gain it in the first place. The researchers argue that just eliminating the largest portion sizes in retail would reduce calorie intake by 12-16% in UK adults, and 22-29% in US adults. Clearly we’re ahead of Britain in super-sized portions.
While the logic of the suggestion is indisputably sound, there’s one issue that they don’t take into account: The addictive quality of some of the foods we eat. In other words, it’s not just the amount of what we’re eating but it’s also the content, since certain combinations trigger addictive behavior – and this element can override the sensible notion to stop eating when we're full, even on a smaller plate.
Constance Scharf, PhD, Senior Addiction Research Fellow and Director of Addiction Research at Cliffside Malibu, points out that if you’re eating foods that are high in fats and sugars – the perfect combination to trigger a state of craving – then you’ll necessarily go back for more.
“You have seen it or maybe experienced it,” says Scharff, who herself battled her weight for many years. “You eat a single serving of chips (one of those little lunch bags) – and then you eat another and a little later you eat another – and then before you know it, you’ve eaten three or four bags. The way the brain works is that it gets triggered – and then you keep going back and back and back.”
So what we also have to do is simultaneously shift the foods that are filling up that smaller plate. “If you are committed to losing weight, there is no doubt that eating from single serving containers or on smaller plates will help you to control your portions of some kinds of foods. The problem is that certain foods, like those containing a lot of salt and fat (chips/fries) or sugar (desserts) or simple carbohydrates (pasta), trigger the brain in ways that make you want more. If you’re a person with a sweet tooth, try eating a single serving of cake. It doesn’t work. But those same people will manage their portions when eating lean protein or fibrous vegetables. You have to combine portion control with foods that will not trigger a ‘binge’ response in the brain.”
In fact, another recent study bore this out: It found that just eating a handful of walnuts every day helped people improve their diets and some measures of heart health not because the walnuts themselves had done anything in particular to the people’s physiologies, but because they triggered the participants to make better food decisions in general – just because they were forced to think about what they were putting in their mouths.
So it’s possible that using smaller plates at home would help people redefine a normal portion, especially if this strategy was also executed by restaurants and packaged food makers. But the other half of the equation is tweaking the content of what’s on those plates in the first place. Since most of weight loss is about psychology, figuring out what will actually help us change our food-related behaviors, and our attitudes toward food in general, is really the key.
By Alice Walton
This Article Originally Appeared on forbes.com