Is ‘Eat Less’ the Right Message?

single lettuce leaf on a plate



It’s the dieter’s mantra: eat less and move more.  While it’s hard to argue with the idea of moving more –after all, a recent study found that our sedentary lifestyle is more to blame than our calorie intake for the country’s increase in obesity over the last 20 years.

So, the idea to “move more” is a good thing, but what about “eat less”?    That’s the question I poised in my most recent blog post for WebMD’s Real Life Nutrition.

Most people who are trying to lose weight begin by cutting down on portions.  They try to eat less by putting less food on their plate.  That may seem logical, but it’s not necessarily the best approach – especially for keeping off the weight.

If you begin a restrictive regimen, your stomach has a hard time adjusting to the fact that you’re feeding it less than you once did.  Constantly feeling famished often turns into regretted eating.  So you may just end up sabotaging yourself.

Instead of eating less you want to try to eat more.  You can enjoy satisfying portions of foods if you factor in what’s known as “energy density.”

Energy density looks at the amount of calories (or energy) in a specific weight of food, such as calories per gram.  The goal is to eat more foods with low energy density, which tend to be either high in water, or contain lots of fiber or little fat.  Low-energy dense foods include fruits, vegetables, salads and broth-based soups. Eating more of these foods can help keep you satisfied and full while lowering your daily calories – without you even realizing it.

Certainly portion control is important for weight management, but urging people simply to ‘eat less’ of all foods may not be the best approach, concludes Penn State’s Barbara Rolls in a new review of obesity studies in the International Journal of Obesity.  She says “a more effective strategy may be to encourage people to increase the proportion of foods low in energy density in their diets while limiting portions of high-energy-dense foods. If people lower the energy density of their diet, they can eat satisfying portions while managing their body weight.”

That means filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables, finding ways to incorporate more vegetables into your entrees, starting your meal with a leafy green salad, and eating more broth-based soups.  The idea is to keep your plate looking full so your stomach gets that comfortable feeling, without feeling deprived.  You want to aim for high volume, low energy density.

We do know if you fill your plate with food that you’ll probably finish it.  A new Cornell University study published in the International Journal of Obesity shows that we’re likely to eat 92% of what’s on our plate. “If you put it on your plate, it’s going into your stomach,” says co-author Brian Wansink.

Just knowing that you’re likely to consume almost all of what you serve yourself can help you be more mindful of appropriate portion size. Next time you grab that serving spoon, think to yourself, “How much do I want to eat?” and serve accordingly.

Wansink has conducted previous studies suggesting that we’re likely to eat less if we choose a smaller plate.  It makes sense.  If you have a 10-inch plate, instead of 12-inch or larger (a typical dinner plate), then you’ll fill it up with less food.

Although a new study published in the journal Appetite found that plate size had no significant effect on total calories of the meal. However, the participants in the study who used a large plate served themselves more vegetables.  The authors conclude that reducing the plate size does not seem to be an appropriate intervention to reduce calories to promote weight loss.  Instead, they say using a large plate might be a simple and inexpensive strategy to increase vegetable consumption.

I’m for that. Don’t focus on simply eating less of all foods.  Factor in energy density, and fill up on high-volume fruits and vegetables at every meal.  Plus, keep up the idea of moving more.


Image:  lettuce on plate by viveraehealth1 on flickr

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