Health & Wellness

10 small food changes that may make a big difference in your waistline

Eating is such a basic and pleasurable part of our lives that we often do it mindlessly.

Pay a little more attention and you might find you’re much more in control of how much you consume than you think. You'll also discover how much things around you — like plate size — can influence your food decisions.

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An assortment of vegetables

Little changes can mean a big difference for your waist line — something that fascinates researchers at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab.

They released a host of findings as part of “The Behavioral Science of Eating” in the January 2016 issue of the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

Here are 10 insights that could change your eating habits:

1. Skip a meal if you’re not particularly hungry.

Are you heading for the fridge because your stomach is growling or just because you’re bored? Try to listen to your body. Eating when you’re not hungry causes your blood sugar to spike, which is not healthy.

2. Be careful around “healthy” food labels.

People tend to overeat food described as “healthy” because they think it’s less filling than “unhealthy” choices. Knowing this, pay attention to the recommended serving size and don’t overload your plate.

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3. Install mirrors where you eat.

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Eat the chocolate cake in front of a mirror and you'll eat less.

It turns out watching yourself devour chocolate cake makes the treat less tasty compared to eating it in a room where you can’t see your reflection. Mirrors in the kitchen and dining room add a bit of discomfort if you’re overindulging, but don’t change the taste of healthy food, researchers found.

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4. Healthy meals can take a cue from “Happy Meals”.

In experiments, adults and children would rather eat a smaller portion of food paired with a toy or gift card than opt for a larger meal without a prize. Brain scans showed they responded to the prize in the same way they reacted to additional food.

5. Take a hint from Disney’s influence on diners.

When fruits and vegetables became default side dishes for kids’ meals at Walt Disney World restaurants, diners ate at least 11 percent more of them. Make healthy side dishes a default in your own kitchen.

6. Read nutrition labels carefully.

Don't be seduced by a tasty treat that hides its true calorie count in a very small recommended serving size. Once you start, will you really stop yourself at two pieces or one thin slice? “Smaller recommended serving sizes will let all nutrition values on the label appear smaller too,” says lead author Dr. Ossama Elshiewy from the University of Goettingen. That can lead to overeating.

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7. Use smaller plates.

Halving plate size meant people ate 30 percent less food on average. This works best if you’re serving yourself, whether at a buffet or out of larger dishes on the dinner table.

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8. You’ll eat less from a less fancy plate.

We tend to throw away more food when we eat from paper plates than when we use ceramic dishware. Researchers think this is because we tend to associate food on disposable plates as more disposable, too. No one wants to waste food, but this research shows plate material plays a role in our consumption habits.

9. Choose a fork over a spoon.

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Believe it or not, you'll eat less with a fork than a spoon.

This simple change can make a difference in how much you eat. People perceive a food as lower in calories and they want more of it when they eat it with a spoon than a fork. When it doubt, go for the fork!

10. Avoid negative messages.

Dieters who watched a “food police”-style video that bluntly told them “All sugary snacks are bad” ate 39 percent more cookies than those who saw a more positive clip. A gentler combination of negative and positive messages about food has a better effect, researchers say.

Follow A. Pawlowski on Google+ and Twitter. This story was originally published in December 2015.

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