How to Eat Less: Becoming Portion Aware

The eleventh Healthy Habits challenge: Be portion aware. Find simple strategies that can help you eat a little less—without even thinking.

Why Portion Control Matters

Overeating is all in your mind. Meet the researcher who is uncovering all the ways that “hidden persuaders” work.

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  • The big fat business of 100-calorie portion control

    The 100-calorie snack pack, an invention of Cornell’s Brian Wansink, rocked the food market when Kraft sold $75 million worth of Oreo Thin Crisps and Wheat Thin Minis in the first year. Now there are hundreds of similar products.  “We did research in the mid-1990s that showed mini-sized food packages could lead 70 percent of people to eat less,” Wansink says. He took the concept to major food companies, but no takers. Then in 2004 Kraft rolled out its snacks, and the market exploded.Is the trend fading? Brandweek reported this year that 100-calorie sales were down, possibly because of perceived high cost in the recession. Critics question whether snackers actually eat less or just keep opening packs until they’re full.Wansink is confident. “There are people whom it doesn’t help and there’s the issue of packaging waste, but I’m so overwhelmed by the people 100-calorie packs have helped that I’m willing to overlook it. 

Small Portions Ahead?
In the world of the instinctive brain battling the conscious brain, of too much food everywhere, and too many hidden cues and hard-sell tactics, what’s a person to do? Wansink advises a combination of tactics, a personal tool kit of strategies that keep hidden persuaders at bay.

First, think about where you put food in your home or office. “The easiest thing to do is to change your immediate environment so you can do the right thing without thinking about it,” he says. This doesn’t mean clearing your kitchen and home of all “temptations.” Rather, Wansink’s data suggests that the amount of certain foods you eat will vary if you vary their location. When you bake a pan of brownies, even a Cooking Light recipe, cut them into small pieces, and store out of view, on a higher shelf (don’t worry, you’ll remember they’re there). Put fresh fruit in view instead. “You’re much more likely to take and eat something off a fridge or cupboard shelf at eye level. Arrange storage at home so you see healthy stuff first,” Wansink says.

Another dead-simple idea: Buy and use smaller plates and bowls. “I’m amazed by how powerful this is,” he says. Other similar strategies are listed on the previous pages. Wansink, meanwhile, has bigger fish to fry. His Food and Brand Lab launched to proselytize the argument that when it comes to plates, at least, size matters; and this year it convinced all 53 restaurants in Albert Lea, Minnesota, a town of about 20,000, to use 10-inch plates instead of the standard 12- to 14-inch plates.

“If it’s a buffet, people will take less and waste less,” he says. “If it’s a fixed-plate restaurant, it makes portions look more appealing. On a 10-inch plate, 6 ounces of salmon looks like the best deal in the world!”

Results of the Albert Lea experiment will be released in January 2010. Even if positive, it may be hard to take the argument to the national level in a country in which big portions are constantly equated with good value―consider the Thickburger. Still, this isn’t Wansink’s first time overcoming skepticism from the business community: He cooked up the now-ubiquitous 100-calorie pack. 

Even plate-size preaching seems like small potatoes compared to Wansink’s other major ambition: making the next version of Dietary Guidelines for Americans more useful. As executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion from 2007 to 2009, Wansink played a key role in selecting the committee currently developing the 2010 Guidelines, which form the basis of all government nutrition policy and are revised every five years. Wansink stacked the committee with members who share his wish to inform public policy with learnings from the kitchen-counter decisions of everyday eaters. He hopes this approach will give the 2010 Guidelines broader impact. (One can only hope, considering the head-scratching that greeted the design of the 2005 Food Guide Pyramid.)

“I pushed to include people with one foot in behavior and one in science,” he says. “Everybody knows you’re supposed to eat an apple instead of a candy bar, but it’s not going to happen without help.”

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