Shirley Perryman Column: Jump Start Your New Year’s Resolution

Along with counting down the shopping days left until Christmas, did you know it’s only 12 days until you make your New Year’s resolution?

If you’re thinking of a resolution about weight control, one simple idea is to resolve to become more aware of portion sizes. Portion size is the amount of a specific food consumed at one time. How much you eat of a single food can directly impact your weight.

First, consider the size of the plate you’re filling. A recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine concluded that the size of bowls and serving spoons is directly related to the amount of food consumed.

Dr. Brian Wansink, a professor of marketing at Cornell University, conducted a study using ice cream. He made different size bowls and scoops available to a study group made up of nutrition experts. Those who unknowingly had the larger bowls served themselves 31 percent more ice cream than those with the smaller bowls even though they were able to judge serving size.

Consider how tiny a half cup of ice cream, a standard serving size, looks in a large bowl. When it doesn’t look like much, the tendency is to compensate and add more. In years past our dishes were smaller in size. What used to be platters are now dinner plates. The more room on your plate, the more you are likely to eat. If a smaller plate is not available at your next holiday party, resolve not to fill it up.

Another study by University of Pennsylvania researchers showed the tendency to eat whatever amount is offered. Researchers call this "compulsion completion." It means that when you see a portion of food, your mind drives you to finish the entire amount regardless of the size of the portion.

For example, it doesn’t matter whether the cookies are cut into smaller or larger squares, you’ll likely eat the whole piece and that can make a big difference in your total caloric intake if the pieces are larger.

Did you know that food portions have increased substantially in the last 20 years? You can see the change yourself by going to and taking the portion distortion quiz. One example given is for cheesecake. The typical piece of cheesecake is now more than twice as big, which translates into 380 extra calories.

The third reason you may eat more is because there are more choices. The challenge to controlling how much you eat during the holiday season is due in part to the variety of special foods that are offered. It has been shown through research that variety is a driving force behind how much we eat. If we think there are more options, we are likely to want to taste all of them even if the difference is only the shape.

Barbara Kahn, a marketing professor at Wharton School of Business, illustrated this in a study by separating jelly beans into different assortments and then measuring how much was eaten. More choices meant people ate more. Dr. Kahn concluded this has direct application to helping those who want to control what they eat. If people are aware that an assortment of treats may cue them to want to eat more, they could resolve to limit the amount they eat. Consider having just a few different foods on your plate at one time.  

At your next holiday gathering, before you start filling up your plate, take a minute to see what your options are. When possible, choose a smaller plate. Cut a holiday treat into a smaller size before serving yourself. And, finally, take note of how many choices there are and resolve to eat only a few.

By the time the New Year arrives, you’ll be on your way to making that resolution a reality!


Shirley Perryman, M.S., R.D.

Department of Food Science and Human

Nutrition Colorado State University

Cooperative Extension Specialist