Portion control is a hot topic in health right now. So much so that food companies are repackaging entire product lines to cater to consumer demands for healthier options – even McDonald’s in the U.S. has done away with supersized meals.
And it’s not just a food industry or weight-control trend – scientists are also eyeing up what’s on our plates. Several recent studies examining the relationship between portion size and what we eat offer helpful insights for anyone trying to downsize – on dinner or body dimensions.
Read on and see how these studies can help you improve your portion control and lose weight more effectively.
What you see is what you eat
When it comes to portion control, the eyes have it. In fact, according to several recent studies, what your eyes see on the plate determines to a significant extent how much you eat.
For example, if there are 20 cashews in a bowl, you might take six or seven (110 calories). However, if there are 50 cashews in a bowl, you’re more likely to take a handful of 15 (240 calories). In both cases your eyes will tell your stomach and mind that you’ve had a moderate portion – but the “moderate portion” from the larger bowl has 130 more calories.
This can make a big difference to weight control, as one study involving university students at a party shows. When the students served themselves snack food from two different-sized serving bowls, those who ate from the 4-litre bowl consumed 42 percent more of the snack food than those who ate from the 2-litre bowl.
When asked to take a “normal” serving size of snack food from two different-sized bowls, participants in a related study took 50 percent more from the larger bowl.
Portion control tip: Both of these studies show that the bigger the serving bowl, the more you tend to eat because you think it’s a “normal” amount. To overcome this portion distortion, try serving your food on smaller plates or weighing your food so you know exactly how much you’re eating. Don’t rely on your stomach to tell if you’re full!
A good deal?
Although food companies are starting to downsize product packaging, large package sizes are still a major barrier when it comes to portion control.
Studies show that larger package sizes make people use more. Brian Wansink and his team at the Food and Brand Lab at the University of Illinois have conducted over 50 experiments involving everything from M&Ms to spaghetti to popcorn to laundry detergent, and found that larger packages can cause people to consume up to 48 percent more.
So while it might seem like you’re getting a good deal when you buy a large bag of pretzels for only 40 cents more than the regular size – you’re not saving anything in terms of calories. In fact, you’ll “spend” more. You also don’t save much when it comes to cost. Research has found that you simply use more or waste more. From this standpoint, a larger package can often be more costly.
Portion control tip: Aside from the obvious advice to buy smaller packages, try purchasing the bulk-size product and then splitting it up into reasonable portion sizes in separate containers when you get home. That way you really do get a good deal without spending unnecessary calories.
Just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean you’ll eat less
If you don’t like something, you won’t eat much of it, right? Think again! A common way for portion distortion to get the better of you is with foods you don’t like much.
In a study involving popcorn and moviegoers, Wansink demonstrated that even those who don’t like popcorn will eat more of it if given a larger portion. Moviegoers in the study who didn’t like the popcorn still ate 61 percent more if randomly given a large container.
Portion control tip: Don’t be fooled! Portion size influences the amount you eat no matter how much you like or dislike it. A good rule of thumb if you’re not partial to a particular high-calorie food is not to eat it at all. Save your calories for foods you actually enjoy!
Using portion distortion to your advantage
Usually, serving smaller portions is the goal of portion control, but sometimes you can turn that logic around. If you consider that the bigger the portion, the more you eat, then eating those greens might not be such a challenge after all!
If you struggle to eat a healthy food that you know is good for you, such as broccoli, try putting more of that food on your plate. Fill your bowl to the brim with brown rice or bran cereal. Load your lunchbox with pieces of fruit. Put an entire jug of water on your desk at work – not just a glass. Although you’re unlikely to consume the lot, you will eat and drink more than you would if you used smaller portions.
Portion control tip: Increasing the portion size of healthy, low-calorie foods you don’t particulalry like can help you eat more of them. Serve yourself lots more than you want to eat, and you’ll probably eat close to a healthy amount. If you’re going to leave half your carrots behind – make it a big half!
This article was compiled in consultation with Calorie King experts and in reference to the following sources:
Brain Wansink and Matthew M. Cheney, “Super Bowls: Serving Bowl Size and Food Consumption,” JAMA 293:14 (April 13, 2005), 1727-1728
Brian Wansink, J North and J.E. Painter, ‘Why visual cues of portion size may influence intake’, Obesity Research, forthcoming
Brian Wansink and S. Park, ‘At the Movies: How External Cues and Perceived Taste Impact Consumption Volume’, 200, Volume 12:1, 69-74
Brian Wansink, ‘Can Package Size Accelerate Usage Volume?’ Journal of Marketing, Volume 60:3 (July 1995), 1-14