Smaller Plates Help Reduce Eating, But Only if You Help Yourself

White plate and cutlery on wood

Eating habits can play a big role in when and how much we eat, which in turn can influence our weight. In fact, many researchers are realizing just how important this psychology of eating can be for those who eat too much. That’s led to the creation of a variety of strategies to cut down on the amount we eat using psychology, rather than physiology. Eating off of a smaller plate is one strategy that has been repeatedly studied and often talked about, but past results have shown mixed benefits. The authors of a new paper to be published this week sat down and looked through all the studies that had been done to get you the most accurate information on how to use this sneaky strategy to your benefit.

Why is plate size thought to cut down problem eating?

Over the years, you might have noticed that plate sizes have grown along with the amount of food on those plates. Your mother’s old adage, “clean your plate,” might have made sense when those plates were small and full of healthful food, but today’s plates are large and often filled with less-than-stellar meals. Researchers in the past had wondered whether cutting down the size of the plate, and therefore cutting the amount of food that could fit on it, might help people eat less. While the idea seemed to make sense, it wasn’t clear that people wouldn’t just get up for more plates of food to make up for less filling space. Initial studies seemed to confirm the initial suspicion, showing that smaller plates could help cut food consumption.

How did the researchers study plate size?

The team performed what’s called a systematic review. They thought in advance about what sorts of studies they were looking for and came up with search words they could use to find related articles in a scientific literature search engine. They then went through the articles that search revealed and threw out any that were unrelated or didn’t have the information they needed. In total, the researchers found 56 articles about plate size written in the past that fit their criteria. They looked through all of the studies and put together the findings of all to see if they could figure out whether shrinking your plate could also shrink your appetite.

What did the researchers find?

The researchers found that eating from a smaller plate did indeed help you to cut your food consumption, but there were some caveats. First, you had to serve yourself. Eating off of a smaller plate that someone else has put together doesn’t keep you from eating the amount you usually do. You have to be the one putting the food on the plate. Second, you have to actually be putting smaller portions on the plate. If you’re using a smaller plate, but keeping the portions the same, you’re not doing yourself any good. That might sound obvious, but many people miss items like meat or potatoes that aren’t as easily shrunk. Third, you only eat less when you’re not being observed. People who knew they were participating in a study didn’t change their eating behavior, which the researchers think is why the data seemed so conflicting in the past. In all, the data showed that cutting your plate size by about one third decreases the amount you eat by about one third.

What does this mean for me?

If you’re looking to lose weight by cutting down on the amount you’re eating, go for smaller plates as one of your first steps. It’s an extremely simple way to cut your calories without making any changes to your diet. And it’s not just about plates. Think about getting smaller breakfast or soup bowls, too. If you think your body needs downsizing, chances are good your plates and bowls could also do with a change.