Not just what you eat, but how much believe you’ve eaten, determines how satisfying food is

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When it comes to advising about what to eat for fat loss, I’m very much into quality over quantity. Eating a protein-rich diet which is relatively low in carb tends to work very well for the purposes of fat loss, even when no restriction is placed on calorie intake. Why? Well, one reason might be that certain carbs (those that disrupt blood sugar the most) are uniquely fattening, primarily through their influence on the ‘fat storage’ hormone insulin. However, even if this is not true, a major boon of these diets is that fact that they tend to be, calorie for calorie, more satisfying that say higher-carb diets.

What this means in practice is that when individuals accustomed to eating a typical (high-carb) Western diet switch to one lower in carb and richer in protein, they generally automatically eat less because they’re less hungry. Other simple tactics for quelling any tendency to overeat include avoiding foods that can stimulate appetite including those containing artificial sweeteners or laced with monosodium glutamate (MSG). Strategies for putting a natural brake on the appetite are explored in the chapter entitled ‘Satisfaction Guaranteed’ in my latest book (Waist Disposal).

However, how satisfying we find food to be (and how much we eat of it) is not purely down to its chemical make-up. It has for a long time been known that, for instance, food intake can be influence by its proximity, setting (e.g. eating in front of the TV tends to lead to overeating), who you’re eating food with, and the amount served to us or we serve ourselves.

I’m not into the idea of people ‘going hungry’ when they serve themselves food, but there’s no doubt that some of us can be prone to overeating when food supply is plentiful. So, one little trick that can work here at home, is eating food off smaller plates. Personally, if I’m at home, I eat my lunch or dinner off a large-ish side plate (rather than a dinner plate). My decision about which plate to use is based purely on my level of hunger.

I was thinking about this today while reading about a study presented recently at a scientific meeting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA. You can read about the study here.

The study was designed to test the effect of perceived food intake on the satisfaction derived from the food. The research comprised two parts. In the first experiment, individuals consumed a fruit smoothie. The individuals in this study were shown a picture purported to represent the whole fruit in the smoothie. Half the people were shown a picture of a small amount of fruit. The other half were shown a photo with more fruit in it. It turns out that, overall, those who were shown the photo with more fruit in it were more satisfied (even though they consumed the same amount of smoothie as the other group).

In a second experiment, researchers manipulated the ‘actual’ and ‘perceived’ amount of soup that people consumed. “Using a soup bowl connected to a hidden pump beneath the bowl, the amount of soup in the bowl was increased or decreased as participants ate, without their knowledge. Three hours after the meal, it was the perceived (remembered) amount of soup in the bowl and not the actual amount of soup consumed that predicted post-meal hunger and fullness ratings.”

What’s this got to do with people eating off smaller plates? Well, it occurred to me that perhaps putting a given portion of food on a smaller plate makes it look bigger, and therefore we perceive it as bigger, and perhaps get more satisfaction from it than we otherwise would.

A lot of the research on the factors that drive food intake (other than the food itself) has been done by Dr Brian Wansink. His book, Mindless Eating, is a thought-provoking and entertaining account of unconscious influences on what and how much we eat, and the simple steps we can take to reduce any tendency to over-consume food and drink. More about this book and Brian Wansink’s work can be found here.

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