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One Small Change

Can You Eat Sensibly at a Buffet?

Joe Kita

This month I’ve resolved to consume all my meals from smaller plates and bowls in an attempt to slow my eating, be more mindful of food, and eventually become the master of my weight. In my last blog post, I presented the convincing research behind this simple strategy. Now you’re about to see it in action.

Could there be a better place to test this plan than an all-you-can-eat Asian restaurant called the Crazy Buffet? This is like Kirstie Alley taking a job at Dunkin’ Donuts, or Dick Cheney pulling a shift as a Wal-Mart greeter. It’s bold. It’s fraught with peril. But it’ll quickly determine if I’m on the right intestinal track.

The Crazy Buffet offers five, count ‘em, five rows of food, most of it bathed in indeterminable sauce. There’s a hibachi grill and a sushi bar, plus a dessert trough that includes dip-your-own ice cream. (To take a virtual stroll through the aisles, watch the video below.) The price of admission is $9.25 for dinner, but you can also buy the buffet by the pound to go.

To make my challenge even greater, I arrived with an empty stomach and asked to be seated: 1) at a table rather than a booth; 2) as close to the buffet as possible, and; 3) facing the food. Research shows that this trio of factors prompts buffet diners to eat more. But when I stepped up to the plates, I was surprised to find they were all small (just 9 inches in diameter). I didn’t need the one I’d smuggled in. When I asked the hostess if there was anything bigger, she shook her head. And when I pressed her as to why, she said she didn’t speak English.

Actually, it’s an old buffet ploy: Be a bit slow in replenishing the good stuff and provide smaller plates so customers have to go back more often. This combination of enforced patience and mild inconvenience is the secret recipe for reducing consumption and raising profit. Who would have guessed they’d read the research?

And sure enough, it worked for me. Although I filled (and cleaned) five plates, I ate significantly less than if my dish was the size of a hubcap. By the end of the meal, I didn’t have to loosen my belt like I usually do at buffets nor did anything crazy happen in the bathroom the next day.

Why did this strategy work? There appears to be two main reasons—one psychological and the other physical:

  1. Small plates trick the mind: It’s called the Delboeuf Illusion. Take two identically sized circles. Surround one with a much larger circle and the other with a slightly larger circle, and most people will swear they’re not identically sized. In fact, the one with the larger border will look significantly smaller. How does this impact chowtime? Simple. The more “white space” around your portion, the more meager and less satisfying it looks. So we fill it up.
  2. Fast eating tricks the stomach: Experts say there’s about a 20-minute lag between when your belly is full and your brain realizes it. This sounds terribly inefficient for a system that’s usually so exquisite, but Amanda Carlson-Phillips, MS, RD, CSSD, director of performance nutrition and research for Athletes’ Performance, has an interesting theory. She suggests this may be a fairly recent development. When you think of all the things that must happen to start the digestive process, from the smell of the food itself increasing saliva production to the release of various enzymes and hormones, it makes sense that the brain is slow to react when we instantly swallow a drive-thru burrito or eat breakfast in 2 minutes. If we’re not preparing and savoring our food, or are without the usual digestive cues, then little tricks like smaller plates, chewing food more thoroughly, and even surveying the buffet instead of digging in immediately can all help close that gap and enable us to eat less.

“I noticed something interesting the other day,” says Danielle LaFata, MA, RD, CSSD, CPT, a performance nutritionist and education specialist with Athletes’ Performance. “The china my mother-in-law received for her wedding in the 1970s was a lot smaller than the china I received for my wedding in 2004. In fact, my dinner plates are as big as her serving platters.”

Hmmm, maybe this One Small Change isn’t so crazy after all….

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About The Author

Joe Kita – Joe Kita is a noted writer, editor, motivational speaker and teacher. He authors the blog "One Small Change" for CorePerformance.com.

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Tags: Eating Out, Weight Loss, Calories, Food