Food Psychology Hacks

Avoid straying for your healthy diet by using these food psychology hacks.


By Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN


Sure, you know what’s healthy and what a portion size is, but there are lots of sneaky factors that may still cause you to reach for the wrong stuff. Luckily, researchers have decoded some common culprits and come up with ways to outsmart them. Use these food psychology hacks to avoid those subtle diet saboteurs.

Pay Attention to the Size and Color of the Plate

It’s hardly news that portions—and plate sizes have grown. It’s normal to want to see a full plate, so eat off of a smaller one at home so a smaller amount of food looks like more—a visual key to satisfaction.

Just be mindful not to pile it sky-high or load on too much. If food is falling off the plate, you’re likely overdoing it. This applies to bowls too! If you’re out and given a huge plate, try spreading food across so it covers more surface area.

The Cornell Food & Brand Lab has done numerous studies on how things like plate size and other factors influence eating behaviors. One study on self-refilling bowls, for example, showed that how much was food was still in the bowl influenced how much study participants ate, causing them to eat more as they worked to get to the bottom, which of course the refilling bowl prevented them from reaching.

Using how much you see in front of you as your cue to tell you when you’ve had enough is not the best way to avoid overeating. Putting your fork down between bites can help give your body and brain a chance to process.

Visual contrast also helps us eat less. Another study by the Cornell team found that diners served themselves more when the color of the food matched the color of the plate. When the dinnerware and the background (color of the table, cloth, or placement) it was on were different, they ate less.

Consider the Eating Environment

You’ve probably heard that watching TV while eating can distract us. Specific types of shows and movies can also influence our choice. This study showed that action movies may cause us to eat more. Lighting matters too. While we may tend to eat more slowly in dimly lit restaurants, this study showed that people may order more healthfully in more brightly lit dining establishments.

Scan the Buffet

The Cornell Food & Brand Lab has also studied habits of thin people and overweight people in various eating environments to search for clues. They found that buffets can be a minefield of overeating opportunities. The order in which food is presented can influence what we put on our plate, so scan what’s available before committing.

It also helps to sit away from the buffet, ideally facing another direction so you can’t see it. This can also apply to eating occasions in the home where food is laid out for diners to serve themselves from. You may also want to keep serving dishes off the dinner table and out of sight so you’re not tempted to go back for seconds or thirds.


Letting non-starchy vegetables dominate the plate is about more than just looking pretty. Filling up on these nutrient-dense, lower-calorie foods lets us see more on the plate, which is key to physical and mental satisfaction. This idea of more food, less calories is at the core of the Volumetrics Diet, a plan created by Dr. Barbara Rolls. It’s not just about veggies, either. Think about looking at ½ a cup of cooked corn vs 3 cups of popcorn—same calories, totally different eating experience.

Jessica Cording, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian, health coach, and writer with a passion for helping others experience a happier, calmer life and a balanced relationship with food. For those in need of some healthy-eating inspiration, Jess created five day's worth of delicious make-ahead lunches to make it even easier to eat well on a busy day. For more information on Jess, check out her website and follow her on InstagramTwitterFacebook and Pinterest.

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