The Optical Illusions of Dinner Plates

Plate selection may be the newest diet trend. If your food is the same color as your plate, you'll eat more. Smaller plates also make us believe we've eaten more.


There's an interesting new discovery concerning weight loss. You may subconsciously be eating more than you think you are if you're eating from the wrong color plate. Sound crazy? Well, there certainly seems to be something to it.

The color contrast on your table - between your food and your plate and your dinnerware and the tablecloth - creates an optical illusion that can encourage you to eat more than you realize, according to a new study by Dr. Brian Wansink and Dr. Koert van ittersum of Cornell University.

Sixty attendees at a college reunion were divided and directed to buffets serving either pasta with tomato sauce or pasta with Alfredo sauce. Each person was randomly given either a red or white plate, and they served themselves. Their portion sizes were weighed using hidden scales.

Those who served themselves pasta with Alfredo sauce on a white plate or pasta with tomato sauce on a red plate placed 22 percent more food on their plate than those who had a red plate with Alfredo sauce or a white plate with tomato sauce. In addition, reducing the color contrast between dishes and the table, tablecloth, or placement helped reduce over-serving by as much as 10 percent.

These findings are part of an optical illusion known as the Delboeuf illusion, named after a Belgian scientist who discovered it in 1865. Delboeuf found that when you look at two identical circles, they are seen differently, depending on the size of the circle placed around them.


Wansink and van Ittersum found that the effect applies to the plates and bowls we use. Larger dishes can make portion sizes appear smaller, and smaller plates can lead us to believe that the same quantity of food is more than it actually is. In other words, larger plates can cause us to eat more and smaller plates can help us eat less.

This new study is a continuation of the work of these researchers on the effects of optical illusions and eating behavior. It suggests that plates with contrasting color to the food sends a "wake-up call" to the brain to make us more aware of portion size. To minimize the Delboeuf illusion, serve food on plates with a contrasting color to the food you plan to serve at a meal.

The authors also found the background colors, such as the color of the table, the tablecloth, or placemats, also help in eating smaller portions. A tablecloth with a low contrast to the dishes can minimize the effect of the Delboeuf illusion and aid in eating smaller portions.

Sometimes you might want to take advantage of the Delbouef illusion. You might just trick your kids (and yourself) into eating more green vegetables if you serve them on a green plate!

The study will be published in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

This article originally appeared on, an Atlantic partner site.

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Beth Fontenot is a registered dietitian and a licensed dietitian/nutritionist. She serves on the Louisiana Board of Examiners in Dietetics and Nutrition and writes for

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