Imagine this: Your friend just stopped by to drop off a plate full of cookies and some holiday cheer. Your co–workers are carting boxes of baked goods into work. Clients are sending over packages of chocolates and candy. Right now, some version of this scene is playing out across the world, and the message is pretty clear: you're going to be eating more over the next few weeks.
Image by Brent Hofacker (Shutterstock).
Now imagine an alternative scene. You eat a plate full of delicious food. You laugh and smile and share memories with your loved ones as you sit around the table. When a friend stops by with a plate of cookies, you're grateful that they thought of you and you welcome the chance to catch up on life. When January rolls around, you step on the scale and notice that you're the same weight that you were three months ago, maybe even two or three kilos less.
This second scenario is possible, and it has nothing to do with being motivated or having the willpower to ignore all of the holiday goodies. Instead, it's all about designing your behaviour and automating the hard decisions in your life. With that in mind, here are some simple ways to reduce the number of calories you take in this holiday season without depriving yourself of foods you enjoy.
Big meals are not the problem
If you don't want to gain weight over the holidays it has very little to do with how much you eat over the course of a single meal or a single party.
Instead, it's about how many calories you consume each week and each month. If you have a massive meal but eat fewer calories during the entire week, then you'll lose weight overall. Embracing this long-term view is critical because you start to realise that you can be happy, eat well, enjoy big meals, and still end up doing what's right over the entire holiday season.
The holiday span from the end of November until New Year's Day is around seven weeks long — about 50 days in total. You can eat whatever you want on Christmas and New Year's if you follow the right formula for the days in between. When you eat well for 40+ days in November and December, it doesn't really matter what you eat during the parties and special occasions.
If we're going to eat more food during holiday parties and if we're snacking on cookies and treats throughout the week, then how can we cut calories in other places so that by the end of the week we are eating the same amount that we normally do?
We've already established that motivation is not the answer, so let's talk about three ways to take advantage of your own psychology and design your eating behaviour without having to think about it.
Let your plate control your portion
If you think that you'll simply be able to remember to put a little less food on your plate this winter, then you are sorely mistaken. Motivation is a fickle beast. It's a terrible way to make lasting change in your life because it's always fluctuating. If you're hoping to actually stick to a healthier lifestyle, then you can't rely on getting inspired at the right time and hoping your willpower will carry you through.
Instead, you need to design your behaviour by altering the environment around you. That way, you don't even need to think about making good decisions. They just happen for you. When it comes to eating less, one way to design your behaviour is to use smaller plate. Researchers have proven over and over again that smaller plates lead to smaller portions.
One study conducted by researchers Brian Wansink and Koert van Ittersum, revealed that a shift from 12–inch plates to 10–inch plates resulted in a 22 per cent decrease in calories. Assuming the average dinner is 800 calories, this simple change would result in an estimated weight loss between 10 to 20 pounds over the course of one year. Smaller plates lead to fewer calories thanks to a powerful optical illusion known as the Delboeuf Illusion.
The illusion works because we think things are smaller when we compare them to things that are larger. So if you put a piece of food on a large plate, your mind will tell you it's a small portion and thus you put more food on the plate. However, if you put that same piece of food on a small plate, your mind will tell you it's a large portion. The image below describes the Delboeuf Illusion and how it applies to food.
The plate on the left is large and it makes the circle of food in the middle look small. The plate on the right is small and makes the same circle of food appear large. Your mind works the same way and feels satisfied when you eat a small plate full of food compared to a large plate with the same amount. This difference in relative size perception is known as the Delboeuf Illusion. Graphic by James Clear.
The circles of food are the same size on each plate. Either way, you are eating the same amount of food. But forcing yourself to only put a small portion of food on a large plate will drain your willpower and motivation. It feels like you are depriving yourself because the food looks so much smaller on the large plate. Meanwhile, the same portion feels bigger and more filling when you see it on a small plate.
The Delboeuf Illusion has been proven to work for a wide range of shapes, including squares, rectangles, and triangles. In other words, it doesn't matter what you're eating, your mind will still play tricks on you when it comes to the relative size perception of your portion and your plate.
You can safely and happily eat a full plate of food, just make it a smaller plate to start with. Downsizing your plates, will reduce the number of calories you are eating and allow you to feel satisfied at the same time. Forget about willpower and motivation and let the plate control your portion for you.
Pick a colour that makes life easy
The size of your plate isn't the only thing that determines how much you eat. According to a study in the Journal of Consumer Research, the colour of your plate matters too.
Researchers at Cornell University and Georgia Tech conducted an experiment that examined the relationship between plate colour and serving size. The researchers instructed one group of participants to serve themselves pasta pre–mixed with a red tomato sauce and the other group to serve themselves pasta pre–mixed with a white Alfredo sauce. Each person was randomly given a white plate or a dark red plate.
The researchers discovered that when the colour of a participant's plate matched the colour of their food, they served themselves almost 30 per cent more. In other words, if you ate pasta with red tomato sauce on a dark red plate, you at almost 30 per cent more than you would if you had used a white plate. The same was true for eating pasta with a white sauce on a white plate compared to a dark red plate.
The reason behind this drastic difference in serving size is that when the colour of your food blends in with the colour of your plate, then the amount of food doesn't appear to be as large. The result is that you will end up scooping more food onto the plate. Look at the colour contrast in the image below to see what I mean.
Imagine a meal with rice, chicken and broccoli. The colour of your food tends to blend in with the white plate on the left, while it stands out clearly from the red plate on the right. You are more likely to scoop large portions onto the white plate because the food blends in with the colour of the plate and doesn't appear to be as large. Graphic by James Clear.
The higher contrast in plate colour to food colour will automatically prevent you from throwing an extra scoop onto the plate. Typically, this isn't something you will think about, your mind will just realise that you don't need another serving. You don't have to rely on motivation because the colour of the plate is helping your mind make the decision for you.
Try the holiday version of intermittent fasting
Using smaller plates with high contrast colours will control your portions and reduce calories without you having to think about it. Another way to reduce your overall caloric load is to simply skip a meal or two each week. This isn't nearly as hard as it sounds. In fact, it's the simplest thing in the world: do nothing. Literally. Simply don't eat for a 24–hour period. This strategy is one form of intermittent fasting.
Intermittent fasting is a pattern of eating that incorporates occasional fasts (periods when you only drink water) into your regular eating routine. If you're new to fasting, hear me out on this one because it's not nearly as crazy or as difficult as you might think.
Here's the easiest way to make it happen…
Let's say that you spend all weekend eating at holiday parties and going out with friends. At the end of the weekend, you've added 2000 extra calories that aren't usually there.
When you wake up on Monday, eat your regular breakfast and lunch. Your fast will begin after lunch on Monday. When I'm fasting I drink a glass of water every hour or two. I recommend that you do the same. Go to sleep Monday night and when you wake up have another glass of water. If you'd like to have a cup of coffee with a splash of milk, you're welcome to do that as well. Just don't eat anything for the rest of the morning. Your fast will end at lunch time on Tuesday. You'll eat your regular lunch, finish up your work day, and then head home and have a normal dinner.
The result is that you have fasted for 24 hours in total (from lunch on Monday until lunch on Tuesday), but it's not that difficult because you were sleeping for a good deal of the time and you had two regular meals on each day. You don't have to do this often. Once per month can be beneficial and as often as once per week is totally fine.
After the fast, you will go back to eating as normal. By the time the week ends, even if you're snacking on baked goods and cookies throughout the week, your total number of calories will be much closer to normal since you skipped out on two regular meals. This strategy is also relatively easy to follow because you only have to stick to it for two meals, instead of trying to follow a strict diet for every meal all week long.
Debunking the Fasting Myth
Fasting has been practised by humans for thousands of years, but it may be new to you, so I'll take this opportunity to debunk a terrible myth. The myth is that your body goes into starvation mode when you don't eat for a few hours and starts storing fat. I don't know how this myth ever became popular. If it was true, then your body would be starving itself every night when you don't eat for eight hours while you're asleep.
The truth of the matter is that fasting is actually a fat burning state for the body, not a fat storing one. When you eat and when your body is processing food, it is in the fed state. During the fed state, the insulin levels in your body raise. When insulin is high, it's difficult for your body to burn fat. Meanwhile, when your body is in the fasted state, your insulin levels are low. When your insulin levels are low, it's much easier for your body to burn fat.
Moral of the story: fasting for 24 hours will not cause your body to store fat. Actually, quite the opposite. This means that if you decide to do the occasional 24–hour fast, you will not only reduce the total number of calories that you have for the week, but you will also put your body in a fat burning state for about 24 hours. Boom. Double shot of egg nog right there.
Your Plan of Action (Do These Things)
If you want to keep your weight in check this holiday season (or even lose a few kilos), then there is a way to do it and still enjoy the holidays.
1. Enjoy your holiday meals and design your behaviour to reduce calories outside of them. Avoiding weight gain over the holidays is not about controlling the amount of calories you have at a few holiday meals, but in making small, realistic changes to what you eat during the 50–day span of the holidays.
2. Buy a set of smaller plates that are a different colour than what you normally eat. Enjoy your food and trust that the smaller plates will control your portions for you instead of worrying about how much you're eating.
Feel free to get disposable plates if you're just looking to keep your weight in check during the holidays. As an added benefit, you'll save yourself some time because you won't have to clean the dishes either. Use these plates for your regular meals on the 40+ days in November and December when there isn't a holiday party or special occasion.
3. Use intermittent fasting to avoid gains from a big feast. Try a 24–hour fast a few days after a big meal or weekend binge to bring your calorie count back to normal for the week and keep your weight in check.
Regardless of what you do, enjoy each bite. The holidays are a time to enjoy and cherish what you have, not to force yourself to struggle and suffer. Take a few simple actions to design your behaviour and let the rest fall into place. Allow your environment to help you lose weight instead of feeling guilty about lacking the motivation to ignore a cookie.
A lack of motivation doesn't make you a failure, it makes you human. That's why the better choice is to design our behaviour.
James Clear is an entrepreneur, writer and travel photographer in 18 countries and counting. He travels the world in search of the best ways to improve our health, our happiness, and our work. He uses a delightful blend of scientific research, his own experiments, and easy–to–understand writing.