Why buying smaller plates will help you lose weight

Science-based content to help you achieve your goals

Loosing weight, gaining muscle, working harder, studying longer, … All of these are associated with discipline. Influences of our environment are usually completely neglected. Modern research, however, highlights the importance of other, hidden factors.

Dr Gareth Hollands found that reducing the size of your plates can reduce calory intake by 159 every single day [1]. We often assume that we’d be objective; that we’d eat until we’re full and then stop. But we’re strongly influenced by our environment.

Daniel Kahneman noticed that our brain is arranged topologically [2]. In our brain, neurons and synapses that represent similar words are indeed closer to each other. That means, the more often you use certain words together, the closer they are next to each other in your brain. Consequently, less energy is spent on neural signals, which makes your brain more efficient.

Yet, this fact comes with strong consequences. People who saw pictures of old people, even if they were displayed in such a short time so that the conscious mind couldn’t notice them, started to walk slower on average [3]. This is why we tend to eat less if a similar portion looks bigger on a smaller plate. This is why we are more happy after we smiled for 15–30 seconds, no matter how unhappy we were initially. A study found that people who held a pen in their mouth — which got them to smile at least anatomically — rated cartoons as funnier afterwards [4]. Therefore, manipulate your environment in such a way that it maximises your productivity.

The second concept evolves around people being lazy. Indeed, Dr. Gareth Hollands found out that we eat more if food proximity increases [5]. That is, if the fridge is closer, we’re much more likely to eat more. As simply and maybe even self-evident this seems to be, this has strong implications for our daily lives.

It is difficult to not consume sweets if they’re in the apartment and in reach. However, it is much easier to resist not buying sweets at all; especially if we’re not hungry when shopping.

Did that picture make you hungry? My bad; but this starkly demonstrates how much we’re influenced by our environment.

Today, I have two action steps for you:

1. Manipulate your environment so that you’re primed towards your goals

You can buy smaller plates to eat less. You can expose yourself to a green environment to be more creative [6]. You can listen to classical music to calm down and be more relaxed. You can think of your hourly wage to be more productive and derive less pleasure from procrastination or leisure [7].

2. Eliminate temptations

When you go shopping, do it when you’re not hungry. When you’re angry, don’t act immediately upon that emotion. If you want to lose weight, make sure you don’t have sweets at home. If you want to drink less alcohol, well, same thing. If you’re addicted to smoking, make it as hard as possible for you to smoke. Do not have cigarettes at home. If you go somewhere, try to do so without cash to buy any cigarettes. If you’d like to get up early, place your alarm clock far away from your bed so that you have to get up to turn it off. If you’re likely to procrastinate, leave your phone at home and use a website blocker. It’s often that simple.

A final word: It is often neglected how vast the influence of our environment can be. We’re short-term thinkers, yet usually quite smart when it comes to designing the environment we’re operating in. Use that knowledge to your advantage and design an environment that boosts your productivity and help you grow.

[1] Hollands G.J., Shemilt, I., Marteau, T.M., Jebb, S.A., Lewis, H.B., Wei, Y., Higgins, J.P., & Ogilvie, D. (2015). Portion, package or tableware size for changing selection and consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 9:CD011045.

[2] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[3] Bargh, J. A., Chen, M., & Burrows, L. (1996). Automaticity of social behavior: Direct effects of trait construct and stereotype activation on action. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 71, 230–244.

[4] Strack, F., Martin, L. L., & Stepper, S. (1988). Inhibiting and facilitating conditions of the human smile: A nonobtrusive test of the facial feedback hypothesis. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 54(5), 768–777. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0022-3514.54.5.768

[5] Hollands, G.J., Carter, P., Shemilt, I., Marteau, T.M., Jebb, S.A., Higgins, J., & Ogilvie, D. (2017). Altering the availability or proximity of food, alcohol and tobacco products to change their selection and consumption [Protocol]. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 3:CD012573.

[6] Lichtenfeld, S., Elliot, A. J., Maier, M. A., & Pekrun, R. (2012). Fertile Green: Green Facilitates Creative Performance. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(6), 784–797. https://doi.org/10.1177/0146167212436611

[7] DeVoe, S. E., & House, J. (2012). Time, money, and happiness: How does putting a price on time affect our ability to smell the roses? Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(2), 466–474. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jesp.2011.11.012