There's a scientific reason why you clean your plate

There's a scientific reason why you clean your plate

There's a scientific reason why you clean your plate

There’s a scientific reason why you can’t stop eating what’s on your plate, even when you’re full. Learn about the "clean plate" mentality—and how to overcome it.

The Found Team
Last updated:
December 5, 2022
5 min read
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“Look, Alex…your sister’s in the Clean Plate Club…come on, eat up.”

Many of us grew up hearing something similar at the dinner table: gamifying mealtime to encourage finishing every last bite.

The origins behind scarfing all your food in one sitting are complex. And those origins are reinforced by well-intentioned caregivers who just want their loved ones to enjoy a nice meal without wasting any food. But as we grow up and set tables of our own, this “clean plate” mentality can stick, causing us to overeat and gain hard-to-lose pounds throughout adulthood. 

Thankfully, there are ways to tackle it. Let’s get into the how and why. 

Where does the “clean plate” mentality come from?

Our biological wiring isn’t too different from what it was thousands of years ago when early humans struggled to find food. We adapted by gorging when food was available and then storing it as fat before competition or another potential fast (especially during colder or off-harvest seasons when resources were scarce).

Research suggests some of us may have even more recent epigenetic marks within the past few generations—from extreme famines or overnutrition that may impact the likelihood of experiencing obesity and other diseases like diabetes. This history can also create family cultures of food pushing. If your grandmother went through a traumatic time without access to food (like the Bengal or Dutch famines during WWII, or during the Great Depression), it makes sense that your mom was raised to eat up and not to waste a bite. And that she raised you the same way, and so on.

Today, life is different. Most of us are blessed with access to winding grocery aisles, farmers’ markets, and be-there-in-10-minutes delivery options. Almost too many options. 

Overcoming this scarcity mindset and its emotional ties to eating requires slowing down and eating more mindfully. But how? Glad you asked. 

Knowing when you’ve had enough

Deciding whether or not to finish a plate of food (even when you’re full) is often an unconscious decision made in a split second. Researchers call it “consumption closure”—a fancy term for the end of a meal. 

A 2018 study found that people were more likely to want to continue eating beyond satiety when given the option towards the end of a meal. (We all know that moment: I could stop, but do I want to stop?) Participants tended to “justify it by healthifying it”—even if the food was unhealthy. They told themselves that eating the rest now wouldn’t be any worse than stopping and saving it for later.

We know that binging—eating beyond satisfaction—is counterproductive in weight care. Plus, overeating regularly is associated with other long-term health effects, including depression and cognitive function, which can, in turn, result in even more poor choices around food. 

Another major issue is overeating ultra-processed foods that lack nutritional value. People who experience obesity are more likely to be nutrient deficient—be it from biological or metabolic issues or socio-economic factors. This can increase cravings, and if these cravings for proper nourishment are met with more empty calories, they will never be fully satisfied. This is why quality > quantity, at every meal, for every body. 

How to reset your mealtime mentality

Making matters more difficult, it takes up to 20 minutes for your body to process a meal and feel full.But there are ways to break the cycle of the “clean plate” mentality. 

  1. Stay in touch with your hunger levels

The biggest problem with the whole “clean plate” thing is that it enforces a goal without considering your personal satiety levels. The best part about nourishing yourself is just that: it’s something you do for yourself and nobody else. You choose what goes into your body and when.

A tool called the hunger-satiety scale can help. You can use it to assess your hunger and how much to eat. 

1—Starving, no energy, very weak

2—Very hungry, low energy, weak, dizzy

3—Uncomfortably hungry, distracted, irritable

4—Hungry, stomach growling

5—Starting to feel hungry

6—Satisfied, but could eat a little more

7—Full, but not uncomfortable

8—Overfull, somewhat uncomfortable

9—Stuffed, very uncomfortable

10—Extremely stuffed, nauseous

2. Practice mindful eating

Slowing down and really savoring your food can encourage you to eat less naturally. But we get that it can still be hard to overcome ingrained eating habits and patterns. 

Mindful eating may help you slow down. Here are some tips to practice: 

  • Express gratitude at the beginning of the meal. (Or say a prayer.) 
  • Put down your fork between bites. 
  • Breathe deeply between bites.
  • Taste and savor each bite, examine the flavors and textures. Be curious! 
  • Enjoy your company and be present. 
  • Pause and ask yourself: How’s your pace? 
  • Put your hand on your belly: Are you feeling fuller? Access your hunger using the scale above. 

3. Save leftovers

Once you’re satisfied and have had enough to eat, pack away any leftovers into a container or to-go box for later. Even if you’re going to finish it in an hour, at least you’ll have given yourself proper time to digest your meal before eating more than you need. 

After you do this a few times, it’ll become a new ritual. 

4. Be smart about portion size

If slowing down is difficult (and you don’t see yourself changing that), portion control can help. Use smaller plates, or dish yourself exactly the amount you want to eat. That way, you can feel good licking the plate. 

If you’re still hungry for more after finishing your plate and giving your body some time to digest, go ahead and serve up more. Better to return for seconds than overdo the first portion. Welcome to the new “clean plate” club—one that actually supports weight care.


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Published date:
December 5, 2022
Meet the author
The Found Team
The Found Team

Sources

  • Betuel, Emma. The trick that kept our ancestors from starving may contribute to obesity. Inverse. https://www.inverse.com/article/57723-evolutionary-reason-why-its-hard-to-burn-fat
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  • Kaspar, Daniela, et al. Nutrition and its role in epigenetic inheritance of obesity and diabetes across generations. Mamm Genome 31, 119–133 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00335-020-09839-z
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