People who are served larger portions of food tend to eat more – even after they've learned about how portion size affects how much people eat.
So say the findings of new research appearing in the Journal of Health Psychology. Lenny Vartanian, one of the authors of the study, explained how portion sizes correlate to consumption.
"Studies have consistently shown that increases in portion sizes for a wide range of foods and beverages result in increased energy intake," he said in a statement – meaning the more food that's in front of someone, the more she or he is likely to eat. "And the impact is not affected by factors such as hunger or the taste of the food."
Which is to say that people who are served large portions won't necessarily eat more because they're hungry – they may eat more just because the food is there.
L.A. County's Department of Public Health says this phenomenon is one of the drivers of the county's obesity rate – nearly 1 in 5 of the county's adults is obese, and that proportion jumps to 1 in 3 among South L.A. adults. The department is in the midst of its "Choose Less, Weigh Less" campaign, which encourages county residents "to eat a little less."
But in the study, even when participants were given information similar to what the Choose Less campaign is touting, it didn't matter. From the statement:
Participants were served either a 350 gram portion of macaroni pasta with tomato sauce for lunch, or a 600 gram portion. Those in the education group were given a brochure about how external factors, such as mood, advertising, portion size, and social and cultural influences can contribute to overeating, and then asked to write about how these factors had influenced their food intake in the past. Those in the mindfulness group were also taught how to focus on the internal sensations such as the taste of food and feelings of hunger and satiety, before they were offered the pasta.
The end result: The education and mindfulness didn't matter – people with bigger portions ate more than the people with smaller portions.
"The problem is what makes us different from animals," said Alexis Gomez, a family nurse practitioner at St. John's Well Child and Family Center. "When animals are hungry, they eat. But we can override the brain. We are not hungry, but we say, 'Oh, the food is cheap.' We override and then we eat. And that is becoming a problem."
That problem has taken shape in the widespread obesity epidemic affecting the U.S. and, more pronouncedly, low-income communities like South L.A. where there's little public space for exercise and few healthy food options.
"When you go to fast food restaurants, for 5 cents more, they give you a bigger drink or fries," said Gomez. And when you eat all that food, it's got to go somewhere, he added.
"Everything you eat is going to have a certain amount of calories," said Gomez. "And if you don't exercise to burn those calories, everything you eat that you don't burn or don't use is going to accumulate in fat."
That's why portion control is especially important for people who live a sedentary lifestyle, he said – although a sedentary life isn't something he recommends in the first place.
For those who don't know where to start in cutting back on their portion sizes, the Choose Less campaign recommends the following when eating out:
- Add a few minutes to your workout on the day of your outing.
- Consider ordering a half-portion.
- Start with a cup of soup or small salad.
- Box up half your entrée before eating.
And for those eating at home:
- Serve single portions and keep serving dishes off the table.
- Downsize the plates and cups.
- When snacking, don't eat from the package – serve a small portion, then put the rest away.
- Drink water instead of sweetened, sugary beverages.
Photo by Adam Kuban via Flickr Creative Commons.