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Eat, Drink and Be Healthy

Measure for measure, a way to cut calories

(Courtesy Powerhouse Books)
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By Jennifer LaRue Huget
Thursday, November 26, 2009

The holiday season brings with it an overabundance of advice on how to avoid gaining weight in the face of all those festive meals, cocktail parties and plates of cookies brought in by co-workers. Depending on whose advice you're inclined to heed, you can cut back on carbs, mind the glycemic index of the foods before you, fill up on fat or count every calorie.

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Or maybe you could just use smaller plates.

That's the premise of "The 9-Inch 'Diet' " (PowerHouse), a book published last November by a pair of advertising executives that makes a strong visual and verbal argument that much of America's weight problem stems not from eating the wrong foods but from eating too much.

Alex Bogusky, who wrote the book with Chuck Porter, is best known for his work on the "Truth" anti-tobacco ad campaign. He starts the book with a simple tale. Having just bought a lakeside cottage built in the 1940s, he and his wife went out to stock up on dinnerware. But the plates they bought (regular ones from somewhere like Target) didn't fit, no matter which way he tried to jam them in the cupboards. Slowly it dawned on him that those cupboards had been built with much smaller plates in mind. Further research revealed that while most dinner plates today measure 12 inches, in the middle of the past century the standard was nine inches.

And so a "diet" was born. (Bogusky notes that it's not a diet at all -- and thank goodness, as most diets don't work in the long run, he observes.) Bogusky replaced his plates with vintage nine-inchers, and he and his family adjusted their serving sizes accordingly. "Research has proven," Bogusky told me in an e-mail, "the mind is a much bigger trigger for how and when we feel satisfied and full than anybody had formerly realized. More so than the stomach." As a result, he says, he's eating considerably less food at every meal.

And you can, too.

"The 9-Inch 'Diet' " is a fun read, chock-full of images that show how the continual super-sizing of American food-serving vessels has led to our consuming ever-increasing portions. Obviously, the diet is just a way of exercising portion control. But it's an elegant and adaptable way.

People have trouble looking at a portion and knowing whether it's too large or too small, Bogusky says. "If I show you two portions, you can tell me which is bigger, but you won't be able to discern which one is the right size. And today with the size of everything ballooning out of control, there is nothing for us to make a legitimate comparison to. The nine-inch plate is an absolute size reference that we used for a hundred years, and it worked. It can work again."

The beauty of this "diet" is that it doesn't rule out any kind of food. It just gives us a way to gauge how much we should put in our mouths. In fact, several pages of the book are dedicated to color photos showing how meals for various diet plans, from Pritikin and Weight Watchers to Atkins and South Beach, look on a nine-inch plate.

Of course, going nine-inch isn't just a matter of digging Grandma's china out of the attic. First, this approach works only if you commit to it and allow yourself time to get used to using a smaller plate at every meal. The payoff: Once you're in the groove, Bogusky promises, "you won't even have to keep an eye on your portions anymore; your plate will do it for you."

That commitment requires getting rid of your big plates. Bogusky reluctantly suggests that, in a pinch, you can resort to paper plates, whose size is marked right on the package. Bogusky notes that it's not just our plates that have grown larger but also our drinking glasses and flatware; downsizing all of these should, he says, be part of your new campaign.

To make this really work, though, you have to shop for food that will fit on your plate. You may have to ask the butcher to cut a steak into two servings, for instance, or rethink your notion of how big a piece of chicken should be. And, he warns, "don't abuse your nine-inch plate" by filling it to the rim and stacking food high. "Just use common sense," he urges.

That common sense should of course extend to decisions about getting seconds and thirds. Otherwise you might find yourself eating off the equivalent of an 18-inch plate or bigger! And his illustrations imply that your whole meal, no matter how many courses it involves, should fit on your plate. As for dessert, well, Bogusky doesn't offer much guidance, other than to suggest that when you eat out and order dessert, you should split it with someone.

"The 9-Inch 'Diet' " has been around for a year. Why am I writing about it now? Having seen a lot of diet books this year, this one -- written by someone who is neither a doctor nor a dietitian -- makes more sense to me than a lot of the others. It sets the responsibility squarely on our shoulders to pay attention to how much we're putting on our plates and in our mouths.

And then there's this: I know it works, and I knew so even before reading the book. Last Thanksgiving, feeling sentimental, I dug out of my attic my Grandma LaRue's 1950s-era dinnerware, including her nine-inch plates, in a pattern my husband and I have long referred to as "Hideousware." They looked kind of Thanksgiving-y, so we used them at our celebration. The plates were indeed tiny. And we all ate less than usual -- without really noticing.

Have a lovely holiday. And, if you can get your hands on a nine-inch plate, please send me a photo of your own nine-inch meal at checkup@washpost.com.



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