What You Don’t Know about the Mediterranean Diet: It’s All About the Dinner Plate
One of the things I love about Spain is that nobody can agree on anything — and everyone seems fine with that. Take tapas, for instance, those delicious small plates of food that are so popular here in Seville (and just about everywhere these days). The word comes from tapar, “to cover,” but does it refer to setting a slice of bread over a wine glass to keep out flies and dust? Covering a glass of inferior wine with a slab of strong, salty cheese to mask the taste and boost your thirst? Reducing public inebriation by ensuring that you eat whenever you imbibe? In America, a cultural icon this important would be the subject of a definitive study and a host of fact-checking websites. Here in Seville, it’s an issue that only seems to come up when you’re actually in a tapas bar, which is not a setting conducive to serious critical analysis.
One thing we can say for sure about tapas: the small plates encourage us to eat modest portions in a leisurely manner. It’s an easy form of portion control that’s built into the Mediterranean diet — yes, that diet, the one innumerable studies have shown can help us live longer, healthier lives with less chance of developing dementia. To say nothing of letting us enjoy much, much better food along the way.
So why isn’t everyone benefitting from this blissful union of traditional wisdom and modern science?
For a start, today’s super-sized dinner plates are tricking us into eating ever-larger portions at every meal. No, I’m not suggesting that inanimate objects have learned how to exert mind control over humans (not yet, anyway), but the very size of these plates triggers something in us known as the Delboeuf illusion. It’s a simple equation: the bigger the surface, the smaller stuff looks sitting on it. Here’s the classic visual experiment involving two black dots of equal size.
The bigger the white circle, the smaller the black dot appears. How does that translate to your supper?
A bigger plate gives us a strong visual cue that the portion is too small to satisfy our hunger, triggering thoughts of bolstering our meager meal with a nice big helping of mashed potatoes smothered in gravy. Such cues are remarkably difficult to resist, as changes in our eating habits attest.
Since 1960 American dinner plates have become 36 percent larger; from being 7 to 9 inches across they’ve expanded to about 11 to 12 inches. During that same period the average bodyweight in the US rose 17%, from 140 to 164 pounds for women and from 166 to 194 pounds for men. Of course, there are many social, cultural, psychological, and economic factors affecting your avoirdupois. But if your portions get bigger, and your calorie intake gets bigger, there’s a pretty good chance your waistline will follow the trend.
The typical European dinner plate is still no more than 9 inches across, and a tapa plate tends to be between 7 and 8 inches. My friend Steve, who exports hand-painted Spanish ceramics from Andalucía to the US, recently told me, “When I first started, my biggest problem was getting the artisans to make cups and plates that were big enough to sell in the States. A 12-ounce mug? Unheard of here. They drink their coffee in tiny espresso portions, not our giant lattes. And dinner plates are only 9 inches, tops.” Steve has successfully convinced his Spanish suppliers to create jumbo crockery, making American consumers happier, if not slimmer.
As for me, I’m sticking with European-sized plates and portions. “Studies show that people are more satisfied with less food when they are served on 8-inch salad plates instead of on 12-inch dinner plates,” says nutritionist Dr. Penny Klatell. “For an average size adult who eats a typical dinner of 800 calories, the smaller portions that would result from using a smaller plate would lead to a weight loss of around 18 pounds a year.” Now that's food for thought.
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12/11/2015 07:33:40 pm
It is also an issue of the size of the dinner table. Inevitably it is smaller here in Spain, since living quarters are generally smaller, so large plates just don't fit! I really think that the US house could use a downsizing....And my apartment in Seville could be a tad larger!
12/14/2015 04:28:01 pm
You're right, Patricia, that nearly everything is smaller here, from tables to cars. I like the more human-scale existence here in Spain.
12/11/2015 07:51:27 pm
Karen, this is great!! the pictures say it all..
12/14/2015 04:29:22 pm
So true, Molly! The first time I saw that graphic with the three plates I was blown away. I'm now serving almost everything on tapas plates, and meals feel like feasts.
12/11/2015 10:31:58 pm
Thanks so much for the post Karen. Really great! Words to live by as usual.
12/14/2015 04:32:11 pm
Thanks, Steve! You were the one who inspired the whole thing, with your comment on plate size. I'd never given much thought to it before. Good information!
12/11/2015 10:33:44 pm
OMG, I didn't realize my arms were so hairy!
12/14/2015 04:39:16 pm
Nonsense. Must be another optical illusion due to the smaller plate size...
According to the WHO, Japan is the country with the longest life expectancy - so we should be studying their diet. Raw fish and chips in future. Also, Australia is second. Australia!¡ How can that be? Their diet is similar to the UK´s (except they eat more wallaby stew), and they are amongst the worst for obesity.
12/14/2015 04:38:10 pm
I knew the Japanese were long-lived, Robert, but I had no idea the Aussies were second. Obviously a lot of factors are involved, not just diet; as you say, climate is a big one. And climate has a lot to do with attitudes about life. Here in Spain, people are far more relaxed about food and look at it as a friend not an enemy. I'm convinced that's a big factor!
Hola, Karen: I´d forgotten - we both live in Spain. I´ve lived here off and on for thirty-odd years, so - obviously - I´ve added about 100 years to my life-expectancy.
12/12/2015 12:12:44 am
On one of my stays in Japan, I offered to cook for my friends with whom I was staying. I made a big pot of ratatouille, barbequed chicken (cooked on a hibachi), and another big pot of rice. Everything got served in the teacup and saucer sized crockery typical of a Japanese kitchen and, voila, it all looked like Japanese food. Until the invasion of US fast food chains, the only plump folks to be found in Japan were professional sumo wrestlers. Now there are plenty.
12/14/2015 04:44:30 pm
A lovely story about Japanese-size portions, Alicia. Sadly, obesity rates are going up everywhere, including Spain. I blame fast food and the modern sedentary lifestyle. It's one reason I'm grateful to live in a city where it's far more practical to walk than drive. You probably find that in Nerja, too.
You refer to "typical European dinner plates". Does this include Albanian plates? Are they the same as Belgian, which may well be different from Italian plates? A friend commented that they´d noticed a big difference between British breakfast plates and Polish ones, but it may be that when you come to the dinner ones, they´re the same.
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TO I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
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