We Eat With Our Eyes – and they deceive us!

We Eat With Our Eyes

28 February 2014

Written by Jennie Bayliss

It may seem a strange idea, but it’s been shown that we eat with our eyes in terms of  how much food we put on our plate. Although many of you will have realized that habit dictates portion sizes too, what you may not realize is that your eyes and brain subconsciously assess how much food will be enough to satisfy your hunger by considering the volume of food (or drink) that is in front of you.

In Brian Wansink’s brilliant book, Mindless Eating he recounts dozens of experiments that his Food and Brand Laboratory have undertaken to understand what influences our food choices. Some of his studies are really funny, like the bottomless soup bowls he rigged up where, unbeknownst to the customers, their soup bowl was secretly and continually filled from the bottom of the bowl via a hidden tube. Because the bowl never emptied, people had nothing to visually judge how much they had eaten and so on average people ate the equivalent of 2 bowls of soup and some people ate 3 times as much!

In another experiment Brian invited 53 MBA Students to watch Super Bowl Sunday with the tempting free, eat-as-much-as-you-like buffet of chicken wings, dips and soft drinks. At each table there was an empty bowl for chicken bones. What the students didn’t realize was that on one side of the room, the waiters kept removing the bowls of bones and replaced them with a clean, empty bowl whilst on the other side the bones were allowed to pile up. As the bones were taken to the kitchen, they were counted, weighed and recorded. The result? On the tables where the chicken bones were regularly removed from the tables, the students ate on average 7 chicken wings each. On the tables where the bones were allowed to pile up, the students ate on average 5 that is 28% less. Without a visual reference, we can’t judge how much we have eaten and despite thinking we eat according to hunger, we use our eyes to tell us how much we can eat.


As shown in these experiments, we eat with out eyes, but they are not very good at judging  It seems we gauge our portion size in relationship to the plate or bowl that  it is on, or in. These photos demonstrate this. This is one of my meals, first placed on a large white dinner plate. The portion looks small and my eyes ‘ tell me’ it’s not enough to fill me up, so after I have eaten it, I may be tempted to have seconds. Then I moved my food on to a much smaller plate. Now the portion looks large—even though it’s exactly the same—and my eyes now judge I will be full when I have eaten it and therefore I won’t crave seconds. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.

Also remember it takes 20 minutes after eating before your ‘full’ signal truly comes into the play. Before that point, your eyes will tell you how much to eat.


Take a look at this photo. I’m sure you’ve already guessed what I’m about to say – all the glasses contain 200 ml in them, but it doesn’t look like it does it? Although the tall narrow glass is not full, it still looks like more than in the short, squat glass. Choosing your glassware will impact on your portion sizes too.

So, to help you monitor your food and drink, consider your plate sizes. It is fashionable to have larger plates than we used to have. If you dinner service has such a thing as a fish plate, then use this instead of your main plate. If you don’t wish to replace your entire service, charity shops often have old style crockery with plate sizes much smaller than we have now.

Eat Well—Be Well 🙂

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