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.