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Medically reviewed by Michael Ryan, MD

Dinner Plate Size & Color Affects Food Intake


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plate-size

You already know that monitoring portion size is an important part of healthy eating. But what about the size of your plate?

According to some studies, a plate’s physical appearance, particularly its size and color, can influence calorie intake. That means that if your kitchen cabinets are filled with large plates, bowls, and glasses, you may be over-serving yourself at meals without even knowing it.

Do Plate Sizes Affect Your Portions? Yes, They Do.

Several years’ worth of research points to a relationship between plate size and how much we serve ourselves. In one study, members of a test group with larger bowls ate 16% more cereal than those given smaller bowls. What’s more, when both groups were asked to estimate the size of the cereal portion they’d just consumed, those with larger bowls estimated they’d eaten 7% less than those with the smaller bowls– even though the participants in the group with larger bowls had eaten more.1 This is just one in a series of studies that suggest eating from larger bowls and plates can cause us unknowingly to eat more at meals than we would if served from smaller dinnerware.

Not Only The Size, But Appearance Of Your Plate Matters

How exactly does the size of a plate influence our impression of how much we’re eating?
A more recent paper investigates this question with five studies that included nearly 200 participants between the ages of 18 and 39. Asked to complete various tasks, including serving themselves Campbell’s soup into bowls of varying sizes, and serving themselves creamy pasta Alfredo in either white or red bowls,2 the study participants misgauged due to what the research suggests may be attributed to a well-known optical illusion first described by Belgian philosopher Franz Delboeuf in 1865.

The Delboeuf illusion proposes that we tend to misjudge the size of identical circles surrounded by circles of varying sizes– if a circle is surrounded by a large outer circle, we perceive it as smaller, but if that same circle is surrounded by a small outer circle, we perceive it as larger. In other words, the more blank space there is around the circle, the smaller it appears.

Now, imagine that optical illusion in the context of filling a bowl up with soup. The diameter of the amount of soup you’ve poured into the bowl will appear smaller if you’re using a very large bowl– the illusion could cause you to pour yourself more soup than you originally intended to.

In a similar vein, the study found that participants tended to serve themselves more when the colors of their food and plates were similar; think, pasta with white Alfredo sauce on a white plate. When their food contrasted with their plate color, this over-serving didn’t happen. The researchers suggest that this may be because contrasting food and plate colors reduce the effect of the Delboeuf optical illusion.

It should be noted, however, that it’s difficult to tie perception of serving size and consumption to one single psychological process. Some separate researchers have said that linking plate size and portion size is too simplified an explanation, and that different cues, like the amount of food available or remaining in a serving dish, may have more of an influence on how much diners serve themselves.3

Smaller Plates Will Help You Eat Less

If you’re already wise to this research and you’ve tried to purchase smaller plates, you may have realized they are somewhat difficult to come by. Over the past several decades, the size of what’s considered normal dinnerware has substantially increased. In the early 1980s, the diameter of a typical dinner plate was roughly 10 in (25 cm). By the early 2000s, the diameter of typical dinner plate increased to 12 in (30 cm)– that’s a surface area increase of 44%. This increase in plate sizes is occurring alongside America’s increasing rates of obesity.

At home, consider serving your main courses on smaller salad size plates to see if it helps you reduce portion sizes without feeling cheated. Or you can simply curb the impulse to fill a large plate all the way up with food by measuring out your portions before plating them. Either way, smart eating requires smart portions– even though plate size is on the rise in America.

References

  1. Wansink, Brian and Koert van Ittersum, “The Visual Illusions of Food: Why Plates, Bowls and Spoons Can Bias Consumption Volume,” FASEB Journal, 2006; 20:4 (Mar 6) A618-A618, Part 1
  2. Wansink, Brian and Koert van Ittersum, “Plate Size and Color Suggestibility: The Delboeuf Illusion’s Bias on Serving and Eating Behavior,” Journal of Consumer Research, 2012; 39:2 (August 28)
  3. Rolis, Barbara J., Liane S. Roe, and Jennifer S. Meengs. “Using a Smaller Plate Did Not Reduce Energy Intake at Meals,” Appetite, November 2007; 49:3: 652-660
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14 Responses to “Dinner Plate Size & Color Affects Food Intake”

  1. Xiao Chen
    July 4, 2013 at 6:41 pm #

    That is very interesting. Do you think there’s a difference between food consumption and whether the diner uses a plate vs a bowl?

    • July 5, 2013 at 8:48 am #

      @Xiao – In light of the information in this article, my guess is that there would be a difference in food consumption of a plate vs. a bowl, but it would depend on the variables like the size, appearance, and color of the plate vs. the size, color, and depth of the bowl. I agree, it is interesting.

  2. James
    July 5, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    Switched about 3 months ago to Japanese style plating of meals. Typical sizing is 4.5 inch for rice/soup bowl, 4 to 7 inches for square plates. Noticed that portion size went way down and variety of food at a meal went way up. This seems to create a more satsfying meal experience even though the amount consumed is quite small.

    For reference, a typical meal would be 3/4 to 1 cup rice, soup, about 3 to 5 oz meat, and 2 sides of some type of vegetable. Even though it sounds like a lot, the calorie load is a lot less than a typical meal for me plated singly on a 10 inch dinner plate. Also have noticed that I tend to use (and can afford) better quality ingredients (especially the protein) for meals served this way.

    Very interesting, as this started out as a culinary experiment that quickly got adopted as general SOP because my wife and I came to the conclusion that we both were eating quite a bit better and enjoying meals more.

  3. July 5, 2013 at 12:17 pm #

    note that the “surface area” of the plate is different than the area of its top circle.

    SA = (2pi x Radius^2) + (2pi x Radius x Height)
    Area = pi x Radius^2

    It’d be quite unpolite to eat off the entire surface area of your plate.

  4. Elif
    July 5, 2013 at 12:34 pm #

    This is interesting. Studies have also shown that the colour blue is an appetite suppressant, and people who eat from blue plates eat less too. Also, like it is written above, when your food is the same colour as your food, you misjudge the amount of it and fill your plate up more… And I can’t think of that many foods which are blue, and it contrasts with yellow/orange (which is the colour of most unhealthy food) so it’s beneficial both ways.

    • Kristin
      July 6, 2013 at 12:53 am #

      Haha, I wrote this and hit post, but you had already beat me to it ;b Not sure why it didn’t show – maybe it has to be reviewed first/spam checked? :)

  5. Kristin
    July 5, 2013 at 1:02 pm #

    At one time I had read a study that stated blue plates also inhibit eating. One of the theories behind the inhibition was that most foods are not blue (which I thought odd as we eat things such as like blueberries, but what the hey. I guess you have to start somewhere :) OK yes, they are technically purple). Room color can effect appetite too. Isn’t psychology great ;b

  6. Hank
    July 5, 2013 at 2:15 pm #

    Delboeuf effect is interesting but the real problem is finding smaller sized plates and bowls. Colors also may limit eating and bright colors tend to be less psychologically appetizing. I guess weighing your food like they do in some fast food restaurants may actually provide a healthy answer. Overall, the psychology of eating needs more study. Thanks for bringing our attention to this topic.

    • Kristin
      July 6, 2013 at 12:58 am #

      Hank, in addition to James idea (I must look into that!), I use the salad plates that came with my set as my main dishes (I switched to those a long time ago as dinner plates frankly have always been to big for my petite self). You can also stop into discount stores like Ross, Marshalls, TJ Max etc. and find smaller plate sets. I suspect World Market or a similar store would have the dish sets James is referring to.

      • James
        July 6, 2013 at 2:11 am #

        Dish sets are easy to get on Amazon (for those that use them). Look under sushi sets..you can typically get two bowls and a couple of plates per set. I like the mix and match strategy. Another supplier is Mrs. Lin’s kitchen (google it). I continue to be surprised by the variety of dishes out there. Sort of like shoes; at least one for every foot :-)

  7. Kara
    July 5, 2013 at 11:32 pm #

    Why not use children’s plates? I use my kids plates for my dinners and they are quite a bit smaller than my salad plates. Also you can find them in many fun colors too.

  8. kay
    July 6, 2013 at 8:23 am #

    I totally agree with this. What works best for me when I have a larger plate is, instead of heaping the food up, I get smaller servings and spread them out to make the plate appear full. And then eat slowly and enjoy the meal.

  9. Holly
    July 6, 2013 at 4:09 pm #

    Thanks for the interesting article. A couple of years ago I bought smaller plates and cups after reading Mindless Eating by Brian Wansink. It was a great read with loads of interesting studies about the many, many food choices we make without thinking about it. Plate size really is a big deal.

  10. liza
    July 8, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

    Great article — great comments! Thanks to all for sharing these tips. I have started eating out of smaller vessels/plates and did notice a difference. This story reinforces that I need to make it a habit.

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