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Are Your Plates Making You Fat?

Are Your Plates Making You Fat?

flickr/Jim Roberts

Can the color of your plates make you eat more or less food? Yes, according to new research done at the Cornell Food and Brand Lab. Lab director Dr. Brian Wansink, Ph.D., and Dr. Koert van Ittersum discovered that diners served themselves more food when there was little contrast between the color of the food and the color of the plate.

To test their theory about color contrast, the researchers conducted a study, in which 60 participants were divided and sent to buffet lines offering pasta with red tomato or white Alfredo sauces. Diners were randomly given either red or white plates on which to serve themselves the pasta. After the diners plated their own food, their portion sizes were weighed. The researchers discovered that low contrast between the food and the plates (for example, pasta with Alfredo sauce on a white plate) resulted in 22 percent more food being self-served.

Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, told Squid Ink that when we serve ourselves food, we often space out and don't really think about how much we are putting on our plates. (Guilty as charged.)

"Creating a contrast between the color of the food and the color of the plate makes you realize how much you're over-serving," Wansink says.

The researchers also confirmed that size matters when we're talking plates. Using a smaller plate creates the illusion that we are serving ourselves more, while we actually are selecting less food. And when we have a big, empty plate we seem to feel deprived unless we fill up every inch of it.

With both color contrast and plate size, a kind of optical illusion is taking place. This is known as the Delboeuf illusion, named after the Belgian scientist who discovered the phenomenon in 1865. (Who knew they had buffets way back then?) Actually, Delboeuf looked at concentric circles and observed how our perception of their sizes change, depending on the size of the outer circle. He discovered that if the circumference of the outer circle becomes larger, we think that the inner circle is smaller than it actually is. (Now pretend the outer circle is a plate and the inner circle is a taco ... you get where this is going.)

Wansink and van Ittersum used the Delboeuf illusion for their series of five studies looking at other possible food-to-plate illusions. Their overall conclusion was that plate size and color contrast between food and plate do, indeed, cause us to eat more or less.

So what about at home? Should we overhaul our dishes, so that we have a rainbow of plates to choose from?

"Clearly, you can't have every color of plate in your cabinet," Wansink says. "But if you look at the foods that you're most prone to over-serving, they tend to be pasta, rice, potatoes. If you have some dark plates in your arsenal, it's an easy way to eat a little less without punishing yourself into doing so."