The Problem With The Clean Plate Club

Nearly a century ago, President Woodrow Wilson started a “Clean Plate” campaign during World War I to help conserve food in America and focus citizens' attention not wasting valuable food.  The mantra of “waste not, want not” was a rallying cry mothers and politicians through the Great Depression and World War II.  President Harry Truman encouraged kids to pledge to join the “Clean Plate Club” to best utilize post-war resources.
Forward another generation or two and I can see myself as a child sitting at our family table being admonished to finish everything on my plate and then – and only then – could I <have dessert, play outside, watch TV, fill in reward here>.  I think this was repeated across the land, often supplemented with the guilt-inducing “There are starving kids in Africa that don’t have anything.” – so not only was eating everything on my plate a reward-incentive, it was a moral imperative!
Forward to today and obesity in America is a rampant epidemic.  35% of Americans are considered obese (a staggering three-times as many as when I was being hounded by my mom) – and another third are overweight.  Along with the psychological implications of “looking fat”, comes a whole host of fun add-ons: diabetes, heart disease, increased stroke incidence, hypertension, sleep disorders and arthritis.  The main causes are – as you might guess – sedentary lifestyle and over-nutrition*.

Why do we eat so much?  Well, at a basic level, because we can.  Biologically, it seems we’ve got a lot more compensatory mechanisms to handle too-little-food rather than too-much.  But today, this is less of a problem with our metabolism as it is with our brain.  Our brains seek out pleasure and food is a pleasure.  We are taught that “more is better” – so why pay $6 for a sandwich and chips, when I can get the super-giant sandwich and chips for $7.25.  What a deal!
And that would be a deal if you saved half-the giant sandwich for later, but we don’t.  Why?  Because most of us operate not on signals of hunger from the gut, but on visual cues for satiety** — that is, eat until it’s all gone.  There was a great experiment that looked at how much soup was consumed by two groups.  Group A had normal bowls of soup.  Group B had bowls of soup that were plumbed to imperceptibly refill themselves***.  The graph below shows that the people in Group B KEPT EATING THE SOUP.

They ingested nearly twice as much as Group A.  They kept seeing a partially full bowl and kept eating — and the best (or scariest) part was that when asked to estimate how many calories they’d consumed – they figured about as much as the first group, even though they’d eaten almost twice as much.  Good job, brains!
So – what can you do?
1.  Be aware of using your eyes (and not your stomach) to tell you whether you’re hungry or whether you’re “done”.
2.  Eat slowly.  It takes time for satiety signals to go from the gut to the brain.  Pause between bites (and courses).  Don’t wolf everything down.  This is also easier on your pancreas.
3.  Drink some water before eating.  Water in your stomach will help you feel “full” and aid digestion.
4.  Most importantly, PORTION CONTROL.  Don’t put a lot on your plate or your bowl.  Eat a smaller portion, wait and THEN decide if you need some more.  The likely answer is no.
Now where did I leave that half-empty box of Girl Scout Cookies?
*These are the polite clinical terms for saying you're lazy and you eat too much
** This is the classic See-Food Diet – when I see food, I eat it.
*** What an awesome idea – especially when it’s the “Bottomless Fries” at Red Robin.  Oh wait.

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41 thoughts on “The Problem With The Clean Plate Club

  1. Great post. I just had this discussion with Bailey the other day. She had finished her supper & said she didn't feel full. (We usually hear this from Joey, who routinely cleans his plate, puts his fork down, looks at me, and says, "Still hungry." So we offer a piece of fruit. "Still hungry." So we refill his milk. "Still hungry." Eventually we have to just cut him off.) I usually try to be good about telling them to wait a bit and if they're still hungry they can eat more later. You know, they don't often come back for more later.
    I've always been glad I grew up with a mom who didn't believe in the Clean Plate Club and never pulled that starving-kids-in-Africa bit on us. What would me eating all my food do for them anyway? :) They'd still be starving and I'd just be fat. So I don't force my kids to eat all their food. Actually, more often the reverse is true: They want to know exactly how much food they have to eat in order to be able to have dessert/a snack later? (Our rule is you don't have to finish your meal but don't expect to eat all kinds of junk later because you're hungry.)
    I love that study! Very interesting. Makes me wonder how much we as humans do blindly without even thinking about it.

  2. red robin has bottomless fries? i had no idea. num num num. i hate it when people waste food. i try to get mia to clean her plate, but i don't give her too much. and if she wants more, i'll get her more… however, i always overeat. hehe. i'll get huge helpings and wolf it down. and i'll totally get 2 or 3 servings. you should see me at an all you can eat buffet. i'm disgusting. :P

  3. Those suggestions you gave? That's exactly what I was told when I went through a weight loss program 6 years ago. And you know? I lost 40 lbs and I've been 130 or less for 6 years (I'm 5'4"). People always think I'm one of those "naturally skinny" people that can eat anything I want. Nope. It's all about waiting for true hunger, portion control and eating til you are satisfied not stuffed.

  4. I take such issue with childhood obesity for two reasons: 1) It's the teacher in me. Kids come to school listless more often because they were fed four pancakes or two donuts or McDonald's for breakfast than because they weren't fed. Then all they can think about is when snack time will come, then lunch, then how to sneak snacks during class in the afternoon…(I also wonder if there's an oral need here, but that's a different study and post entirely.) 2) I grew up with two older brothers who were always overweight and I saw how it affected them. Besides having emotional issues to deal with after my father left, my full-time working mother was a teacher – a demanding job that paid little. Because of her schedule and lack of funds we often ate the cheapest food we could find (McDonald's is the perfect example). Subway was a very special treat for us (on the healthier side of fast food) and home-cooking, well, we must have been celebrating one of my mother's "good days" for that to happen.

  5. [this is great]. Ye gads, we're no better than dogs! Here's an excerpt of an interesting conversation I'm having with a friend, who has done a good amount of research on our food issues:One of the root problems in industrializing agriculture, I think, is
    the law of the 'fixed stomach': since people can only eat X amount of
    stuff, apparently profits can only increase at the rate at which people
    become more numerous… With other stuff, people have unlimited
    appetites (e.g. plasma TVs, expensive cars…), but there's this pesky
    limitation on how much food people will buy. And since the population
    grows at only 2% per year or something (which I guess is an apparently
    an unacceptably small percentage increase in sales?), companies have a
    hard time staying in business UNLESS they can increase the proportion
    of processed foods people eat– or convince them to eat more– etc!Food for thought. (But don't overeat it).

  6. Grace -I have never had to ask for more fries at Red Robin. They give you one big wopping sandwich.
    Steve- I don't really think this country has a healthcare system problem. this country has an obesity problem. Obesity related ailments fill our doctor's offices and emergency rooms. I deal with "disabled" people as part of my job. Most people that file for disability are obese and have obesity related ailments. Being fat is costing taxpayers a fortune. It even leads to depression and anxiety (that panic attack is really your heart and lungs not working at a good level and almost not working at all in a stressful situation). I need to lose weight, but when I tell people that they look at me like I am crazy. Fat has lost its shock value. When is the last time you looked at a 300lb person said "whoa?' now it takes a 350lb person and in five years it will take a 400lb person, but in the meantime we are looking at the person pushing 180lbs at 5'7" as healthy.
    They tried to teach us in school that being fat is okay, but it isn't. It is deadly. Just as deadly as drugs and alcohol. There should be shame involved in having this problem. A little bit of shame is good for you from time to time. I am ashamed I weigh almost 180lbs, so I am doing something about it. /rant

  7. Reading the Omnivore's Dilemma right now. It covers all of this. Americans have no "food culture" like other countries. We don't have a culture that tells us how to eat (as opposed to the generally skinny nations of France, Japan, etc.). We just gorrrrge. Because it's cheaper to eat crap food and because we don't know any better. Because buying 1000 calories of food at McDonald's is a HECK of a lot cheaper than buying 1000 calories at Whole Foods. Not to mention how incredibly processed nearly all our food is. It's making me sick just thinking about it.
    I dropped 15 pounds once I really started watching what I was eating. I don't think I was chubby before, but I think my weight now is a lot healthier and more natural than it was when I couldn't put down the Cheetos. I now always split dining out meals into two and bring half home for leftovers. I put snacks in a little bowl and only eat the one bowl. I rarely eat fast food. I'm slowly becoming less of a meat-eater too, but that's mostly because meat doesn't settle well with me a lot of the time, plus I've been reading about how our meat gets from the "farm" to our tables. It's unGodly. I've stopped eating red meat and pork, and I rarely eat chicken and turkey. I still like fish, though. Yum. For most of history, meat used to be a special occasion sort of food, and now it's the main dish at every meal.
    Whew. Food rant OVER.
    For now.

  8. It was amazing how differently I looked at weight after leaving Korea. But, OMG, Sundays at Korean Church when they bring out the Korean food, 1 overflowing plate never seems to be enough for most of the people. That being said. A lot of the 2nd gens are pretty fat.

  9. korean moms are the worst about making girls feel guilty about being fat. my mom's not bugging me too much these days even though i'm just about the fattest i've ever been! when i was thinner, my aunt used to tell me i was fat all.the.time. it's rough being a korean girl… the 2nd gen is fat? really? i don't hang out with many koreans. i haven't noticed…

  10. Great post. Also very interesting you'd mention this… I was just thinking the other day about the weight I've recently gained, and how when I was a teenager and ate much smaller portions, my parents would criticize me for eating so little of my dinner. Sigh. Gotta get back to stopping when I first realize I'm full."[They] KEPT EATING THE SOUP" in all caps like that made me lol. XD In my head, I heard that in an especially dramatic and booming voice.

  11. What a great post, Steve. I never thought of it from a historical perspective. At 110 lbs I never really thought about weight gain until after my wheat allergy was diagnosed, then I gained 12 lbs very quickly. I also think there was a study that showed moving the candies away from one's desk just a few feet made a huge difference.
    Of course it doesn't help that food companies put nonsense on labels like "low fat" when there's loads of fattening sugar in the same product.
    Here are things I try to follow: eat yogurt, soup, (ironically) and drink green tea; supposedly people who do weigh less than people who don't. Also, eating eggs in the morning apparently keeps people full for an outrageous number of hours, something like 24 or more. (Of course eggs can be fattening, but this diet works for me as long as I munch greens and fruit like a bunny the rest of the day).

  12. Red Robin's bottomless steak fries are almost as good as their teriyaki chicken sandwich and chocolate shakes. Yum! Oh wiat, I'm just kind of proving your point, aren't I?
    Our family didn't do the Clean Plate Club but we were all members of our very own Strong Legs Brigade. Much healthier (and far more walking holidays involved).

  13. Great Post! I have been thinking about this lately as Sofia becomes more aware, and more picky, about the things she is eating. I recently watched a program here about childhood obesity with Dr. Paul Gately. It is so sad to see these kids who have no chance when you look at the parents, grandparents and other children in the family. They don't have a choice because it is all they know. Truly an epidemic.

  14. I, too, was raised to be a member of the clean plate club. My waist line proves it. I've gotten pretty good about not overeating at home, but when eating out I've really had to work with myself. And I don't always follow my own rules. When presented with an overly large plate I try to remember to cut each item in half before I start eating. I'll eat one half of each item and take the other half home. Though I have noticed that restaurants are serving less food than they used to. So I don't do this nearly as often as I did just a couple of years ago. And when ordering a fast food meal I often get the kid's meal. Not only is it a more appropriate amount of food, but I get a toy to go with it! This is much more appealing when the toy is something I want. The "girl" toys are lame about 99.9% of the time.

  15. Thanks Mello — it's one I've been thinking about for a while. The visual estimation of calories (what we think we eat versus what we actually eat) is truly amazing. I was a little proud of myself though — we went out for a really nice dinner the other evening and I only ate half of the entree — even though there was part of me that wanted to eat it all.and "They'd still be starving and I'd just be fat. " is one of my favorite quotes… :)

  16. grrrace — I think there should be some sort of nutrition police that outlaw all you can eat buffets. Lord knows I've been guilty of trying to get "my money's worth"! Oof.

  17. If I hadn't known the story, I would have totally thought of you as one of those "naturally" skinny people. Actually, that's a little inspirational since I know I've got many pounds to lose.

  18. Great comment, Corissa. The Economics of Crappy Food could (and should) be a whole set of posts. It is really EASY to become overweight and the most readily available food is junk food. Eating healthily takes time and education and a willingness to spend on some vegetables (and cook them!) rather than just default to the drivethru.

  19. Hapa — I had never thought about the food business model of "growing the market" — that's truly truly disturbing. I think I'd rather see them put less stuff in the same package and charge us the same! (which we were just talking about a couple of weeks ago!)

  20. Budd — there's an interesting social argument here when you think about being a "tolerant" society and First Amendment rights. Smoking is a "voluntary" activity that society used to be pretty tolerant (hell, encouraging!) of — and now comes down on fairly hard. Will obesity be the next? Don't you have the right to eat yourself to death if you want? (Answer: maybe not if I have to pay for it!) — we've certainly paid for smokers' ill-habits. On the other side — where does it stop?

  21. Cori — I think one of the things that has become pretty clear is the need to get away from processed food as much as possible. We joined a local CSA to get local, organic fruits and vegetables — its helped adjust our eating habits into eating more of them — and they taste better! I never used to eat apples b/c they were tasteless and mushy from the store — now I love the ones we get.

  22. Joie — I think the issue with teenage girls is a really confusing one for parents. I think there's this: "oh God I don't want them to have an eating disorder" sort of fear — which is legit for too many families. Walking the line between under- and over- eating as a teen must be maddening. Again — it also comes down to the choice of foods being eaten.

  23. Thanks Ellie — I found it interesting when I went back and looked for the historical roots in the "clean your plate" movement. It made more sense when we had so (relatively) little food and it was so much less processed. Today, it just doesn't make any sense.

  24. I've been told that I occasionally channel Seinfeld in personal conversations (maybe too much) — which is funny, b/c I rarely watched the show — but yes, I think it can be read that way… :)

  25. I completely love the idea of The Strong Legs Brigade — now that's a better family activity than eating at RR — though I will confess to about a once-every-three-months cave in to the Whiskey River BBQ Burger…

  26. Thanks Then — the incidence of childhood Type2 Diabetes is staggering — but when all you are fed is junk food, what can you expect? The real tragedy is that by the time a kid like that has the chance to learn better nutritional habits, it's too late.

  27. QofB — I'm really guilty of just eating everything at a restaurant too. Just this weekend, we were out for a great meal — but I brought about half home — even though there was a big part of me that wanted to finish the plate — and I knew I was full!

  28. Just this weekend, we were out for a great meal — but I brought about half home — even though there was a big part of me that wanted to finish the plate — and I knew I was full! Once you get used to this new practice you come to realize its other benefits. Since you're getting more than one meal from your purchase price you're saving money on food and if it was a really good meal you get the pleasure of enjoying it twice! I keep reminding myself of those two things when I'm tempted to go ahead and eat the other half. 8:-)

  29. Don't you have the right to eat yourself to death if you want? (Answer: maybe not if I have to pay for it!) — we've certainly paid for smokers' ill-habits. On the other side — where does it stop? Let's not forget about this study from last year. Turns out that overeating is cheaper in the long run! 8:-)

  30. Last year when I lost a bunch of weight it was mostly because I was running a lot. The other thing that happened was my diet changed. I ate three times a day. They were three good sized meals but food was not the only thing filling me up. The running was filling something for me. Then, then I lost the will to keep on running. My weight stayed off for a while. Now it is back. Everything you wrote is right on target. After learning of my mom's diagnosis this weekend, my daughter and I are looking into the Mediterranean Diet, but really, it is going to come down to reconditioning my brain to recognize when to stop eating.

  31. … and because we don't know any better. I know you're not condoning the excuse I always dislike excuses like that. I clearly remember being told fast food is bad for us for the past 30 years, and I'm sure it's all been around a lot longer than that.Nowadays anyone who says they don't know about unhealthy fast food is flat out lying. No excuses. The information is in the public domain on so many levels it's ridiculous.People are making a choice to eat the way the they do, sometimes a financial choice which can't be helped but a choice just the same, and they make that choice time and again, day after day. Nobody can blame others for their own choices.

  32. this is funny . . . i just bought a $6 sandwich at this place that makes them so big, i can eat half today and half tomorrow. that's $3 a lunch. not too shabby! less is more! :)

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