If you think about it, nutrition problems can be broken down into 2 simple categories: choices and amounts. For choices, the USDA has repetitively attempted to give Americans simple guidelines through the Basic Seven, the Food Guide Pyramid, and the latest MyPlate. The MyPlate, as you can see, is simple enough for a child to grasp, and clearly portrays the need to consume different kinds of foods for a healthy balanced meal.
Of course, there is a little confusion among lay people about where foods people eat go onto this plate, especially when you're dealing with something like a burrito or a casserole or a piece of pizza. This isn't just an issue of nutrition education; there is squabbling and even downright heated debate among nutrition experts about where to place foods onto the MyPlate, too.
Generally speaking, though, the message is to eat a balanced plate with variety, avoiding too much in one particular category while being sure to eat something from every category. Exactly which foods you put on your plate, though, are influenced by a great number of factors, including preference, beliefs about particular health benefits of certain foods and health risks of other foods, convenience/availability, social/cultural influences, and costs. But as long as you're somewhat clear as to which foods are grains and proteins, and fruits and vegetables, you can presumably make the largest strides into avoiding nutrition problems of choices.
But just because you eat the appropriate kinds of foods doesn't mean your diet is healthy. The amount you eat is also important! We often overeat, causing weight gain. There are many factors that influence eating more than our bodies need, but probably the #1 reason why overeating happens is mindless eating.
Mindless eating happens when we are not absorbed in the activity of eating. I recently posted tips on mindful eating, to be mindful of hunger and satiety cues--to eat when you're hungry, and stop when you're full. But it's important to know that these cues aren't rigid. We can influence our perception of satiety in many ways. (For an engrossing read on this power of psychology on perception in eating behaviors, check out Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink.) One of these perception influences is the size of your plate.
If you look closely above, the amount of food on both plates is the same. And the white circles in the middle of the black ones are the same size too.
When we put food on a bigger plate, covering less of it, our brain thinks there is less food than if another plate has the same amount of food but is better covering a smaller plate. Portion distortion!! All other things being equal, we will eat 20% more if given food on 12inch plates than if given the same meal on 9inch plates. That's a big difference!
When trying to practice mindful eating to have appropriate moderation through listening to your body, it's also important to be aware of other influences like plate size that can communicate with your brain.
Have trouble stopping eating when you're full? Try swapping out your big dinner plates with smaller ones. And if trouble with portions are keeping you from your health goals, work with a trained Registered Dietitian (named Joy Galloway!) who knows much more than perception tricks to help you make healthy choices of foods, in healthy amounts too. Contact me here!