What you eat is important, but even healthy food can stop you from losing weight if you eat too much of it. I never recommend extreme calorie restriction (most people aren't very good at it anyway), but there are some tricks you can use to slightly reduce the amount of food you eat without feeling deprived, or even really noticing.
Image via vesna cvorovic (Shutterstock).
Your brain is easily fooled by shifts in perspective. It's also more responsive to external cues such as an empty plate than internal cues like a full stomach. Understanding these influences can show you how to tilt them in your favour.
In his brilliant book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink encourages you to use the "mindless margin", a daily 100-200 calorie buffer zone where your brain doesn't notice a difference in how much you've eaten.
Usually we eat more than we should because of the mindless margin, but you can use the same principles to subtly influence your behaviour and mindlessly eat less.
Over time this calorie difference can help you drop weight. It's slow, but it's steady. And best of all, it's painless.
Use smaller plates
A full plate sends the signal that you're eating a full meal and a partially full plate looks like a skimpy meal, regardless of the actual quantity of food. The same amount of food looks like more on a smaller plate. Using smaller plates and filling them up is a proven way to eat less without noticing.
Serve yourself 20 per cent less
The mindless margin is about 20 per cent of any given meal. In other words, you can eat 80 per cent of the food you'd normally eat and probably not notice, so long as no one points it out to you. You could also eat 20 per cent more — not a bad idea if you're scooping vegetables. If you have those smaller plates mentioned above, serving yourself a little less should be just as satisfying.
Use taller glasses
Just as less food looks like more food on a smaller plate, height makes things look larger than width, even when the volumes are the same. A vertical line looks longer than a horizontal line and tall glasses look bigger than wide ones. You can cut down on your liquid calories by choosing taller glasses rather than shorter, fatter ones.
Eat protein for breakfast
People love to hype breakfast eating as a miracle weight loss cure, but only breakfasts high in protein have been proven to suppress appetite and reduce subsequent eating throughout the day. Skip the waffles and head to the omelette station instead.
Eat three meals a day
I bet you thought eating many small meals was better than eating three bigger ones throughout the day, but the data tells us otherwise. Though skipping meals can make controlling your appetite more difficult, eating more than three meals a day has not been shown to have any benefit, and may even be worse for appetite control. Eat when you're supposed to and you shouldn't need any extra food.
Keep snacks out of sight or out of the building
Study after study have shown that people eat a lot more when is food visible rather than put away where it can't be seen, even if they know it is there. Research has also demonstrated that the harder food is to get to, even if the extra effort is just removing a lid or walking to the cabinet, the less likely you are to eat it. The extra work forces you to question the value of your action, and this gives you the opportunity to talk yourself out of a decision you may regret later.
To avoid extra snacking keep tempting foods out of sight, or better yet, out of the house. On the flip side, keep healthy foods prominently displayed and easy to reach.
Since I've been paying more attention to eating speed, I've been horrified to observe that most people don't chew. If you're one of those guys who chews the minimum number of times before swallowing or shovelling in another fork full, chances are you're eating substantially more at every meal than your thoroughly chewing peers.
Slow down, chew each bite (counting your chews can help develop the habit) and watch as you fill up faster on fewer calories.
Don't eat from the package
Your stomach can't count. When you can't see how much you're eating you're more than a little likely to lose track and consume double or even triple the amount you'd eat if you took the time to serve yourself a proper portion. Use a plate, or a bowl, or even a napkin; just make sure you get a good visual of everything you're going to eat before taking your first bite.
Don't eat in front of the TV
For the vast majority of us, distracted eating is overeating. The end of a show or movie is another powerful cue signifying that a meal is over, so parking in front of the TV with your plate for a Battlestar Galactica marathon is probably not the best idea. With the advent of PVRs, there's no reason you can't take 20 minutes to sit down and have a proper meal before enjoying your shows.
Don't pay attention to health claims
But wait, isn't healthy food supposed to be better for you? In theory, yes. But truly healthy food — vegetables, fruits and other unprocessed foods — rarely have labels at all. Foods boasting of their health claims tend to be processed junk repackaged as better-for-you alternatives.
Even worse, research from Wansink's lab has shown that people drastically underestimate the calories in foods with visible health claims on the packaging. People also tend to eat more food overall as a result of this miscalculation. He refers to this effect as the "health halo", and it's a recipe for packing on weight. For real health, stick to humble foods without labels.
10 Simple Ways to Eat Less Without Noticing [Summer Tomato]
Darya Pino, Ph.D, is the creator of Summer Tomato, one of TIME's 50 Best Websites of 2011. She is also a dedicated foodist, health enthusiast and proud geek girl.