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Does your brain trick you into eating more?

Sometimes when it comes to healthy eating, we are our own worst enemies, without even realising it.

A recent study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that the colour of the plates we eat off can actually affect how much we serve and eat. Specifically, the study found the contrast between the colour of the plate and the colour of the food has quite an impact on our consumption. If the food is a similar colour to the plate, people will serve and eat about 22 per cent more than if the colours of the food and plate contrast. Add this to what we already know about plate size – choose a larger plate and you’ll almost certainly eat more, even when you’re trying not to – and it becomes clear that our brains can often trick us into less than healthy habits. There’s a great deal of research to show that the many ways our brains trick us into ‘mindless eating’ can contribute significantly to weight gain.

The good thing about this research is that now we know this, we can use it to our advantage. There are simple, practical changes we can make. Use larger plates for salad and vege side dishes and smaller plates for main meals and desserts and you’ll probably eat more of the good stuff and less of the bad. Use a darker plate for creamy white pasta and you’ll eat less, and using a green plate for a green salad should mean you eat more. Use tall, slim glasses rather than fat tumblers and you’ll pour smaller serves. Put tempting foods out of sight and they’re more likely to be out of mind. Use smaller serving spoons and you’ll serve less. These things sound like no-brainers, and in a way they are; doing them helps us trick ourselves into eating better, without feeling like we’re somehow being deprived.

There are also behavioural habits we can develop to make us into more mindful eaters. For a start, eat without distraction. Eating in front of TV, computers or books make us eat more. Eating at the table has great benefits for family and social life, and it also means we’re more able to focus on our food and eat more mindfully, which in turn means we’re able to tune in to our body’s satiety signals and actually recognise when we are full.

Savouring our food is another really important element of mindful eating. Often if we feel like we ‘shouldn’t’ eat something, we wolf it down in a hurry because we feel guilty. Instead, try embracing your ‘danger’ foods: eat them slowly, savouring the flavour, texture and aroma and feeling the pleasure of eating. Give yourself permission to enjoy your food and you’ll be far less likely to overeat.

I’m interested in your experience. Do you find when you eat in front of the TV that you tune out from your food, and before you know it, the plate is empty? Have you tried any ‘mindful’ eating techniques, and how have they worked for you? Post your comments below.

First published: Feb 2012
Last updated: April 3 2017
Last science review: October 10 2016



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