Optical Illusions That Make You Fatter and Your Wallet Lighter

Photo: rrd

One of my best friends, a long time ago, told me that the key to food portion sizes was this: "Eat from small plates, drink from taller glasses." It's a piece of advice I had forgotten, especially after moving to the U.S. where portion sizes seem to have gone from the sublime to the ridiculous. But in a book I'm currently reading called "Mindless Eating" this advice about container sizes is validated by Dr. Brian Wansink, Ph.D, a man who clearly knows his stuff. And optical illusions are at the root of it all. (See also: The Psychology of Salaries: Do You Want to Know How Much Your Coworkers Make?)

I think back to my childhood, to one of the first really cool tricks I was shown by a teacher. A physics teacher actually, but it could have been a math teacher or a chemist. Anyway, the illusion is shown below, crudely illustrated by myself.

Take a look at Lincoln's Stovepipe hat. Is it longer than it is wide?

top hat

As you already know this is an optical illusion, then you already know the answer is a trick. The width and the height are identical. Now, replace that top hat with two glasses, one a tall thin glass and one short and fat. Here we have the issue of serving sizes when it comes to anything from juice to alcohol.

Even seasoned bar staff have way more trouble pouring an accurate drink into a short glass than they do a tall one. Usually, they pour more into the short, fat glass. And this is a big problem when trying to pour yourself one serving of orange juice, milk or anything else. If you use the short glass you are always going to overpour, leading to larger portions, weight gain and, of course, less time between grocery trips. Now consider the next optical illusion.

Which white circle is larger? The left or the right?


Once again, it's all just a matter of perception. The circles are in fact identical in size. BUT, they look different due to their surroundings. The circle on the right is dwarfed by the large black circles, the one on the left overpowers them.

This, when applied to food and plate sizes, is perhaps the most important change you can make to you home life. Serve your food on beautiful large plates and you will naturally serve yourself more of everything. Our animal brain wants to fill the plate, and we were always told to finish what was on our plates as children. But on a smaller plate, less food will fill it. Here's a quick example.


Both food portions are identical in size. In studies Dr. Wansink performed, people ate what was in front of them and if it looked like more, they felt more full. In fact, one study involved a burger that was simply flattened out and placed inside a larger bun. Because it looked like a larger burger, the people in the study felt more satisfied.

Now, if you are using the larger plates at home, chances are you're over-serving yourself on a nightly basis. That again means more calories per meal and more food to buy more often. It's not good for you, it's certainly not good for your wallet. And it can all be avoided by simply getting smaller plates (which to be honest are harder to find, but worth the effort. Dinner plates have significantly increased in size since the 1950's, no doubt to accommodate our growing demand for more food).

There's an old saying in cuisine..."the first bite is with the eye."

I believe this to be true on many levels, and not just one of taste perception. If we see a bigger meal, we'll feel more full. If we see a big plate with a small amount of food, we're already thinking "hmmm, that's not going to be enough." It's also worth noting that these days, time plays a big factor in our eating habits. Like the French, we all need to slow down and enjoy our food. Take longer, smaller mouthfuls. And above all, we need to let our bodies tell us when we are full, not signals like an empty plate or glass.

As a Wise Bread reader, you're already smart about where you shop for your food. You also need to be smart about how you eat it. Smaller portions are better for your waistline and your wallet. Don't get fooled by optical illusions.

Mindless Eating

You can find a copy of Dr. Wansink's excellent book at Amazon (grab the paperback, it's cheaper.) I haven't even scratched the surface of the stories he tells about our mindless eating habits. An eye-opening read and well worth your time.

Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think



Additional photo credit: Mindless Eating
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Guest's picture

I have a problem. When I eat in small plates I think I am eating less and tend to take second helpings....now that means I am doubling up mu intake. What do I do??

Guest's picture

Why don't you use a smaller plate for a second helping? Supposing you just want a little morsel to feel complete, taking a small teacup plate could satisfy the craving while giving you less food than your first serving.

Guest's picture

...don't have seconds?

Sit, finish your beverage, and let the food get to your stomach. No more seconds!

Paul Michael's picture

you slow down. The longer it takes you to eat, the more signals you are giving your stomach that you are getting full. Like many of us I'm sure you're pressed for time, but all of us eat way too quickly. What's more, we eat even more quickly when we eat alone. If you can, make sure you eat with at least one other person, and converse a little during your meal. In France, the meal is not just a meal...it's an occasion for talk, social interaction and fun. Food doesn't have to be just fuel. And if you must have second helpings, wait a few minutes before going back. That may give your stomach time to catch up. Another story from Dr. Wasnick suggests you say out loud "I'm going to go and eat some more, even though I'm not that hungry." The sheer act of saying that out loud may be enough to stop you. Also, drink a large glass of water before you second plate. We often confuse thirst and hunger.

Guest's picture

I knew there was a reason why I ate less at home. I never had room for large plates in the kitchen drawer.

Guest's picture

I like Optical Illusions...I just love them.....sometimes they r so interesting that I want to see more and more,...Sometimes...I show them to my friends....we share with each other....they say that these r fabulous....I am so happy....Optical Illusions are for kid's interest also....As I'm also a girl....a child....And I am very interested....My mo often says...wat do u do....?Wen she sees she also becomes amazed... :)

It's meee-
Tanishaa From

Guest's picture

Dr. Wansink is my advisor at school! I loved seeing blurbs about his book here and on the other blogs I read regularly because it makes me feel just a little special inside :-) I've even participated in some of his experiments - free lunch plus $5 for participating? Tell me that's not a good deal!

Guest's picture

free meal ? was it on a large plate ???

Paul Michael's picture

His experiments are excellent. I loved the never-ending soup bowl. Just goes to show how bad we've all become at gauging our own appetites. Thanks for reading, Michelle.

Guest's picture

I went to a week-long *spa* (very much budget in the woods of tennessee)) this summer and they certainly believed in the small plates concept at meals. It works!

I also learned how to ~not~ eat after 6:30 at night. It is amazing what a difference that makes. I still don't understand why my ice cream sandwich craving comes on at 11pm each night, but I know it is my downfall.


Anyway, thanks for the great articles; I am always compelled to reply when I read a Paul Michael (or is that Michale Paul?) blog entry.


Paul Michael's picture

I think you officially qualify as my first loyal reader. Or should that be replier? Now I'm confusing myself.

Guest's picture

my experience has a bit of a twist. someone i know serves food on very small plates. i usually eat more there because i almost always have a second helping, something that i don't do at home, where we have normal-size plates.

Guest's picture

I've been using a teaspoon to eat my cake, and everyone thinks I'm nuts

Paul Michael's picture

I do the same thing. Seriously. It makes the experience last longer and you feel way more full. It's a lot better than wolfing it down with a huge fork. .

Greg Go's picture
Greg Go

Smaller portions (more smaller meals) also helps me avoid a daily see-saw between being too hungry to think and in food coma mode.

Guest's picture

i cant stick with small plates ...
i tend to order seconds ...
damn it ...

Guest's picture

If you feel deprived by eating on a small plate, get decorateive "sunken" large plates. The kind with a decorated side and a "sunken" solid-colored center. Most are Tuscan style. You will still have a large plate, but have a tendency to only fill the center and not the wide "border" and therefore eat small plate portions without feeling deprived.

Guest's picture

I start snacking on junk food after eating less!

Guest's picture

At home my husband and I have gotten in the habit of eating our first, smaller serving, and then watching a recorded episode of a TV show (Stargate Atlantis is the current pick). Only AFTER the show is over, usually around 40 minutes without the pesky commercials, do we allow ourselves to go back for seconds. Very rarely are we hungry enough to go back for more afterwards. Has worked like a charm for me, I've lost 9 pounds and counting using this method.

Guest's picture

I loved your article. Different and Informative. Thanks a lot!

Guest's picture

Interesting... as a personal trainer i am all for portion sizes. What a great idea here, thanks for the blog!

Guest's picture

All r fools....who say that Optical Illusions r very nice...they r real fools....one of them is ---Tanishaa...who has written sumthing above....I hate u Tanishaa....My father is police officer my mother is a house wife.....Tanishaa ia a lollll....She thinks dat she's smart....but she's not....Tanishaa...dare not reply to me....did u understand...u junk girl.....All this is true..

I am Vatsala Varnan from the school-Notre Dame in class 5"A".My mother is a class teacher their....her name is Priya Varnan....she is nice....I live in patna,Bihar,India....And my phone no. is 9987649364...plz call me guys....And wat I say once I prove it...and all of u should know this....

Guest's picture

Guys.....Plz join with me on fb,Twitter,Gmail,Orkut....plzzzz :) :)

Guest's picture

Well I've seen people walk through walls and i know its an illusion and I want to learn how to. Do you know???

Guest's picture
R. May

Try eating everything possible (obviously soup won't work) with chopsticks. It forces you to slow way down to eat.

Guest's picture

In addition to Mindless Eating, a must-read is The Portion Teller. Both are excellent books. My way to keep the portions reasonable when dining out is to ask for the to-go box as soon as I start eating. I pack up enough for another meal and always have enough left on my plate to satisfy a normal appetite.