Avoid the incredible shrinking holiday pants with a smaller plate

Part 11 in our 12-month series on resolutions for real health improvement

By Dr. James Beckerman, M.D., Providence St. Vincent Heart Clinic - Cardiology, part of Providence Heart and Vascular Institute

Here it comes - the time of year when we trade our regular jeans for that slightly larger, looser pair, so we can comfortably enjoy all the holiday feasts that the season serves up. Turkey, gravy, stuffing, potatoes, pumpkin pie - who can resist? It's no fun to say no, but after a couple of months of yes, even the comfy jeans start to feel uncomfortably snug. By January, we're back to making the same old resolutions to eat less, work out harder and sweat the extra pounds back off. Is there any way around this yo-yo cycle?

There is one strategy that might help, and it's the focus of our November resolution: this holiday season, instead of changing the size of your pants, try changing the size of your plate.

A resolution for the holidays, and every day

The advice is simple: Use a smaller plate, and there is a strong likelihood that you will dish up less, and therefore eat less - and you won't even miss the extra food. Don't buy it? There is a lot of research to back it up.

Brian Wansink, Ph.D., a researcher and writer on the psychology of food choices, has led a number of studies showing that the size of a plate, serving bowl or serving spoon influences how much people eat:

  • In his Super Bowls study, students at a party dished up snacks either from two large bowls or from four smaller bowls. The students who served themselves from the large bowls took an average of 53 percent more food and ate 56 percent more than those who dished up from the smaller bowls.
  • In a free popcorn study, moviegoers who were given free large buckets of popcorn ate 45 percent more than those who were given free medium-sized buckets. The size of the container made such a difference that even when people were given stale, bad-tasting popcorn, they still ate 34 percent more if it was served in a larger bucket.
  • In an ice cream social study, nutrition professors and graduate students were invited to a social event where they were randomly given small or large bowls and scoops and invited to serve themselves some ice cream. Those with the larger bowls were surprised to learn that they served themselves an average of 31 percent more, even though they believed and reported that they had taken no more than anyone else. The spoon size increased serving sizes, as well, even for those with smaller bowls. Those with both bigger bowls and spoons ate an ice-cream-headache-inducing 57 percent more than those with small bowls and spoons. If the nutrition experts can be fooled so easily, the rest of us don't stand a chance.

These and other studies suggest that the amount we eat is often influenced more by visual cues - such as the size of our plate, or the amount of food we are served - than by how hungry we actually are. Some studies have suggested that you can decrease your portion size by 25 percent and feel just as full as you would with a larger serving - your mind and stomach can't tell the difference.

So as the season of feasting begins, dish up - just use a smaller plate. By using a 9- or 10-inch dinner plate, rather than the typical 12-inch or larger plate, you will probably serve yourself 20 to 25 percent less food than you normally would, without even being that aware of it. That smaller amount of food on your plate will translate into good news for your waistband - one study found that the average person lost two pounds in a month, just by using a smaller plate for dinner.

Once you've made it through the holidays in the same-size pants, keep it up. Take these lessons and apply them to the rest of your meals and snacks - not just during the holidays, but every day. Switch to smaller serving bowls, serving spoons and cereal bowls. And when eating snacks, don't eat out of the bag - measure out a reasonable serving, put it in a small bowl, and enjoy. You still may need to switch to a different pants size eventually - but chances are good that it will be a smaller one.

James Beckerman, a cardiologist with the Providence Heart and Vascular Institute in Portland, Ore., is the author of “The Flex Diet.” You can learn more about him and his weight-loss philosophies at www.theflexdiet.com.