Plate-clearing: Vice or Virtue?

What’s your immediate reaction to someone leaving food on their plate? Disapproval? Admiration? Or even envy? It turns out that not finishing what you were served is a highly emotive issue.

One of the steps I recommend to my Appetite Retraining clients who are working on reducing their meal size, is to leave food on their plate as soon as they get to the point of being just full (+3 on the Appetite Pendulum). And boy, does this cause consternation! Not for everyone of course – we’re all different. But for some it causes profound inner conflict. Eating Up is so fundamental to them – written through them like the letters in a stick of seaside rock – that it is a real struggle to put their knife and fork down when their gut tells them they’ve had just enough.

The client and I usually have a discussion that goes something like:

Client: “But it’s wrong to waste food”

Me “Yes, absolutely, which is why it’s useful to learn how to eat just the amount your body needs”

Client: “Yes, but it’s wrong to waste food – it will end up going in the bin”

At this point I turn to my now well-worn spiel,

“Food that is more than we need is no less wasted if it goes through our bodies and into the toilet than if it goes straight into the bin. Putting food into our bodies that we don’t need inevitably leads to weight gain; putting it in the bin does not. By putting what we don’t need in the bin, we can retrain our eye to judge how much to serve ourselves in the first place. And that is when we really stop wasting food.”

And most people get this.

Clearing your plate is virtuous for two reasons

  1. It’s taken as a compliment to the cook
  2. It is seen as not wasting the food


But not so virtuous in other ways:

  1. You’re eating an amount of food based on what someone else thinks you want… they don’t want you to go short so they give you an extra generous portion and you don’t want to offend them so you eat it all
  2. Because you’re eating out of tune with your body, you won’t be hungry by your next mealtime
  3. You are actually still wasting food as we’ve seen above, as you’re consuming food that your body doesn’t actually need. And your body will have no choice but to store the excess calories as fat

Researchers from the University of Liverpool* found that plate-clearing tendencies are associated with Body Mass Index, suggesting that a tendency to clear your plate is a risk factor for overweight. Irrespective of the amount served, the 48 participants in one study** who described themselves as plate-clearers consumed significantly more food than the 41 participants who did not describe themselves as tending to clear their plate when eating.  Whether or not someone was classed as a plate-clearer or not depended on their responses to 5 statements such as “I rarely leave food on my plate”.  Each statement was rated with a 5-point (Likert) scale going from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree”.

The researchers suggested that plate clearing is a potentially maladaptive behaviour in our current “obesogenic” environment. I couldn’t agree more.

Your next step, if you’re a plate-clearer who wants to change

So what can you do if you’re a plate-clearer and you want to lose weight? The simple answer I think is that you need to learn to serve the right quantity in the first place so you won’t need to leave any. And if you’re eating out, order the correct-size-for-you by choosing a starter or a couple of sides instead of an overly large main course. Or ask for a kids’ size portion – lots of places do this now and it’s a great way to have your favourite dish in the size your body will love.

The alternative is to train yourself to leave food on your plate when there’s too much. If you feel anxious or uneasy, use one of the techniques for reducing anxiety in my free download. And remind yourself about the toilet versus the dustbin – where would you prefer the waste to end up?

Other benefits

As well as reducing how many unnecessary calories you’re consuming, when you eat just the amount your body needs, you’ll discover other lovely benefits which may include:

  • Feeling more in control around food
  • Saving money when you eat out, when you order takeaways and when you do your weekly shop
  • Health improvements from reducing the load on your body of digesting all that unnecessary food, such as less indigestion, less heartburn, better sleep, more energy etc etc.


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*Robinson, E and Hardman, C (2016) Empty plates and larger waists: A cross-sectional study of factors associated with plate clearing habits and body weight. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 70: 750-752

**Sheen, F , Hardman, C and Robinson, E (2018) Plate-clearing tendencies and portion size are independently associated with main meal food intake in women. Appetite, 127: 223-229

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