The psychology of eating | small behavioural changes add up to big results

I am a student of the human brain. Honestly, I love learning about what goes on inside my own head, especially when I’m not even aware there’s anything happening 🙂

Humans are exposed to hundreds of thousands of pieces of information about their surroundings each and every day. Even though we pick up on fewer than 5% of them (okay, if we’re really observant, perhaps it’s as high as 10%…), they’re all processed by the brain and together, effect the way we behave and the choices that we make.

psychology of eating

Nowhere is this truer than when it comes to food.

Last week, my husband (who’s also a student of the human brain) dropped a journal article on my desk. He knew I’d be fascinated and (unlike most of the articles he shares with me), due to the topic, would actually read it.

“Easy as pie”** is a review paper written by psychologist Brian Wansink (the director of Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab).

It describes the fascinating results of a number of studies linking dining behaviours with over-eating. He argues that by making subtle changes in our surroundings, we need no longer rely on willpower to keep us from mindless eating.

And that learning a bit about the psychology of eating may result, over time, in big changes in behaviour and weight.

His philosophies about weight loss, weight loss maintenance and habit formation echo my own;

My favourite actionable items from the post?

  • Simply serving food on plates that contrast in colour with your food can reduce calorie consumption by up to 18%; apparently white food gets lost on white plates and our brains have difficulty determining how much is actually there. Creating more visual contrast highlights portion size and results in us eating less!
  • Women who store packaged foods (especially breakfast cereals and potato chips) behind closed doors weigh (on average) 9.5 kilograms less than those who leave them on the counter top; out of sight definitely means out of mind when it comes to food. Turn this subconscious behaviour to your advantage by leaving a bowl of fruits and veggies out, in plain sight.
  • Families whose meals are served from the stove or counter eat 19% fewer calories than those serving themselves at the table; when we have to walk to the kitchen for a second helping, most of us don’t (which is great for ‘calories in’, but rather sad when you realize it reflects our general attitude about daily movement…). As a corollary, the author suggests that serving salad at the table is a great way to increase your intake of greens.
  • Big plates result in bigger portions. Same thing goes for serving spoons, especially when food is served ‘family style’ at the dinner table; purchasing smaller dinner plates (25-cm rather than the standard 30-cm) will not only shrink your waistline, it’ll also shrink your grocery bill.
  • People pour 12% less liquid into tall, thin glasses than they do into short, squat glasses. (Bartenders do this too, so if you’re looking to score a larger drink at the bar, ask for a tumbler rather than a highball glass 😉 ); Why? People tend to focus on the height of the glass when pouring, rather than its width. Want to reduce your serving size by another 12%? Either pour standing, or place your glass on the table; looking down at a glass makes it appear fuller so we stop pouring sooner.

I love that none of the above suggestions require any exertion of willpower at meal time. Just committing to a different way of storing and serving the foods you already eat. I’m always happy for an excuse to purchase new tableware!

Did you know about any of the above patterns?

Which of the above will you put into practice today?

** You can find the entire article in the January 10-16th, 2015, issue of NewScientist magazine. Volume 225 No. 3003.



  1. I grew up in a family where we plopped the bowls etc ON the table and there were rarely leftovers.
    Each time I read that about serving from stove or counter it just makes SO MUCH SENSE.
    and yet?
    in the 70s? 🙂
    so few of us did it that way!
    CARLA recently posted…I walked my half-marathon!My Profile

    • As did I. In fact, I actually serve food this way to my family, but never put too much on the table. Besides, it’s only 4 steps from the dining room table to the kitchen counter and my boys don’t think this much of a deterrent to grabbing seconds…

  2. We always serve from the counter/stove. I love doing it that way. However, we eat in the living room almost every night infront of the tv which I know is NOT good. I need to change that habit.
    I wonder if the family would be ok with using the dining room table in the basement 😉
    I never thought about the glass sizes, that makes sense, the plate size we already do, but our plates are white…hmmm..I love an excuse to buy new tableware also 🙂
    Thanks for this article, it was very interesting!
    Amy @ Mama Running for God recently posted…Weekend Update and it SNOWED in Iowa!My Profile

    • Amy, although the article didn’t report and studies showing a negative link between TV watching and dining, I’m pretty sure there’s lots of data out there that says ‘don’t make it a habit’.
      I’ve started eating breakfast off of a sandwich size plate. Much easier to walk away from pancakes 😉

  3. These are such awesome items to put into daily practice! They make such sense. Out of sight, out of mind for sure. And I love the tall vs short glass idea. I would agree with it because when I think about giving myself a pour, I’ll generally fill it up to the same general height regardless of the volume. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I have read about some of these associations. They’re fascinating, aren’t they? I’ve also read that red stimulates the appetite (that’s why so many fast-food companies incorporate red in their signs and interiors), so red plates should be avoided. Blue is better. Not sure if that would really make a difference or not, but it’s interesting to think about.

    • I love all of this too, Carrie. Psychologists have really fun jobs! I have heard the same thing about the colour red; maybe not a great colour to paint your dining room either!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing all this. Another great and informative post. I also find that writing down what I eat helps. It is amazing how much things add up quickly, and when you’re writing it down and keeping track I tend to make better choices. Now, to go get a short chubby glass to get some more water 🙂
    Jesica @rUnladylike recently posted…Every Day is Progress: Week-in-Review & Link-upMy Profile

  6. Out of site and maybe out of mind is definitely a habit I try for. if nothing else, it makes me think about whatever it is I have tucked into the closet, and decide if I am going to eat it. Rather than seeing something on the counter and diving in before thinking. More often that not. Having to think about it first, stops the reaching for it!

  7. Gotta love that hubby dropping off juicy articles. Thought-provoking post altogether to consider environmental aspects. Along with your tip about leaving fruits and veggies on the counter is to put those needing refrigeration at eye height in the refrigerator and put less healthy choices low or in back.
    KymberlyFunFit recently posted…Solving Knee Pain: What Is and Isn’t WorkingMy Profile

  8. Great practica tips. Catering to lazyness is such a powerful thing.
    Colin Chambers recently posted…What is the key to your workout?My Profile


  1. […] The Psychology Of Eating | Small Behavioural Changes Add Up To Big Results via Fitnitchick – Eating is about behavior and habits. A few small changes can have a huge impact on your weight and health. Love these suggestions. […]

  2. […] The Psychology of Eating: Small Changes Add Up To Big Results via Fit Knit […]

  3. […] Pretty Little Grub Questioning the Idea of Good Carbs, Bad Carbs – The New York Times Well The psychology of eating | small behavioural changes add up to big results – […]

  4. […] The Psychology of Eating: Small Behavioral Changes Add up to Big Results  Love this review of Dr Wansick’s approach to health: small changes as opposed to fad diets, its fascinating to see how our brains work and how we can use this to our advantage! […]