Concerned Health Experts Investigate Roots of "The Clean Plate Club"

American Institute for Cancer Research
Friday, 12 September 2003

Americans Can No Longer Afford Membership, Says AICR

Concerned that too many Americans are lifelong members of the "Clean Plate Club," experts at the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) have investigated the uniquely American compulsion to finish everything on the plate. According to their research, this behavior has its roots in a much different time in American history. Ironically, the notion of the "Clean Plate" was originally introduced as an incentive for Americans to conserve food, not gorge themselves on excess calories.

"The notion of 'cleaning your plate' was originally tied to another, equally important idea: put only what you need on your plate in the first place," said Melanie Polk, RD, Director of Nutrition Education at AICR. "Today's Americans are still cleaning their plates – but because they've lost the ability to gauge portion sizes, they pile those plates with more food than they need."

That's why the AICR experts argue that the habit of cleaning the plate should be regarded as a relic – one that has no place in today's society, where 65 percent of the country is overweight or obese.

AICR Surveys Reveal 7 in 10 Americans are Clean Plate Club Members

Being told to "clean your plate" has been a familiar rite of American childhood for decades, and the idea has become so ingrained in our society that seven out of ten Americans surveyed (69 percent) say they finish their restaurant entrees all or most of the time, regardless of the entrée's size. This passive approach to portions extends into the American home: 30 percent say they base the amount of food they eat on the amount they are served, while 42 percent say they determine their portions by the amount they are used to eating.

But the AICR experts who commissioned those recent surveys say that longtime membership in the "Clean Plate Club" is linked to obesity and the many health risks associated with that condition, including increased risk for heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

"The unrestrained growth of portions in restaurants and in homes wouldn't be such a major concern if people simply knew when to say when," said Polk. "Today, many Americans feel a need to polish off whatever amount of food is placed before them, even after they are full -- often to the point of discomfort.

"We at AICR wanted to see if we could understand how this notion arose, and why it has become so central to how we as a society deal with food."

True Origin Proves Elusive

Uncovering the real birth of the "Clean Plate" idea was more difficult than AICR experts could have foreseen. Internet searches proved fruitless (see Box, below). Ultimately, AICR turned to the Library of Congress (LOC) for help.

But even the staff of the country's premier library was daunted by the task, at least at first. A few leads turned up in an extensive newspaper search of the past century -- mostly casual references to the term -- but there was remarkably little else to go on. "I was surprised at the dearth of information about this phrase," said one reference librarian in the LOC's Humanities and Social Sciences Division.

"Clearly the term seems rooted in a wartime mentality of scrimping and saving and seems connected with altruistic notions of benefiting the starving abroad (many newspaper references are to the Armenians and Chinese). Clearly too, the term has become a common phrase appearing hundreds of times over the past ten years with ever growing frequency."

AICR experts thanked the librarian for her efforts, and resigned themselves to the fact that their search had turned up another blind alley.

Two days later, the librarian, who had evidently taken up the experts' query as a personal challenge, contacted AICR with what would prove to be the biggest break in the search: the Lever Act of 1917.

Wartime Worries Gave Birth to Clean Plate Club

Numerous historians have written about how the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, sparked by the outbreak of World War I, greatly expanded the traditional role of the Federal Government. In August of 1917, Congress passed the Food and Fuel Control Act, also known as the Lever Act, which gave the president power to "regulate the distribution, export, import, purchase and storage of food."

The first step Wilson took was to issue Executive Order 2679-A, creating the U.S. Food Administration, which was tasked with assuring the supply, distribution and conservation of food during the war. Wilson's choice to head the Food Administration was Herbert Hoover. Wilson instructed Hoover not to take any salary for his new position, which would, he thought, lend Hoover the moral authority to ask the American people to make sacrifices.

Hoover and the Wilson administration firmly believed that "Food will win the war," and promptly began to devise campaigns to decrease the nation's food consumption.

One of the most successful involved encouraging Americans to sign pledge cards testifying that they were making a concerted effort to save food. Local newspapers kept running tallies of the percentage of households in their area that had signed on to these pledges, urging "100% compliance."

One such U.S. Food Administration pledge read, "At table I'll not leave a scrap of food upon my plate. And I'll not eat between meals, but for suppertime I'll wait."

The Food Administration created it's own Advertising Section, which seized upon the "Clean Plate" as the patriotic ideal for the nation to follow. The term became a catchphrase that appeared in hundreds of posters across the country. (The phrase "Clean Plate Club" was still about thirty years away, however; more on that later.)

In one illustration, an overweight man is sitting at a restaurant table that is covered with half-eaten plates while a pair of waiters looks on, aghast. The caption reads:

Sir – Don't waste while your wife saves
Adopt the doctrine of the clean plate
-- do your share

Clean Plate Becomes Clean Plate Club

The US Food Administration was terminated soon after then end of World War I, but its influence – and, in particular, its characterization of a clean plate as somehow patriotic and virtuous, has never completely left the American mindset.

The idea came to prominence again in 1947, spurred by the aftermath of another World War. When the U.S. launched the Marshall Plan to help rebuild a war-ravaged Europe, President Truman called upon the country to eat less poultry as a way to save food for "thousands of starving Europeans."

In response to his appeal, Clean Plate Clubs formed in many of the nation's elementary schools; this seems to be the first usage of the full phrase we know today.

Times Have Changed, Say AICR Experts

"There was more to those first Clean Plate Clubs than clean plates," said AICR's Polk. "The goal of the program, after all, was to avoid wasting food, not to encourage overeating. That's why the clean plate message was always paired with another message, one that's gotten lost in the shuffle: 'Don't put more food on your plate than you will eat.'" (See Illustration 2)

The AICR experts think that yesterday's Americans were simply better at gauging their appropriate personal portion sizes, and eating only those amounts.

But as portion sizes have steadily increased in the country's restaurants and homes, Americans have been reluctant to let go of the idea that a clean plate is a good plate. "Many of us have been conditioned to eat what's in front of us, and are unthinkingly consuming extra calories," said Polk.

The solution, according to the AICR experts, is a more mindful approach to eating. According to an AICR brochure called The New American Plate, one way to regain perspective on portions is to spend a few minutes with a measuring cup. The Institute says that simply by "eyeballing" the USDA standardized serving sizes of some favorite foods, people can easily develop an important and empowering sense of appropriate portions.

Tools for Keeping Portion Sizes in Perspective

Specifically, the brochure advises readers to fill a measuring cup or spoon with the USDA standard serving size of a favorite food and empty it out onto a clean plate or bowl. Simply by doing this once or twice, AICR says, individuals get a mental snapshot of what a single serving of that food really looks like.

Many will be surprised to learn, Polk said, that the bowl of cereal they eat every morning contains twice or even three times the servings (and fat, and calories, and sugar) than they realize. Armed with this knowledge, a person can gradually make appropriate adjustments in mealtime portion sizes.

Advice for Dining Out

"When eating out, say small, say half, and share," said Polk. "If you're given the option, order the small. It may not seem cost-effective, but it's enough food to satisfy most people. In the long run, the calories you save will more than make up for the extra pennies you spend."

Choosing the regular burger instead of the quarter-pound size saves about 160 calories. Ordering a cup of cream of mushroom soup instead of a bowl cuts the calories by half – a whopping 180 calories. Stopping after just one cup of pasta on a three-cup platter saves almost 300 calories.

"At table-service restaurants, ask the server to put half of your entrée in a doggie bag before bringing it to your table. This strategy, of course, is very cost-effective – it provides two full meals for the price of one."

Finally, Polk said, sharing entrees and desserts (if ordered) is a fun and economical way to keep both cost and calories down.

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