The Problem With Promoting Smaller Serving Sizes
An emerging body of research is suggesting that we can make some small changes that strongly influence us to eat less.
A review was recently published by the Cochrane group, looking at 72 randomized controlled trials (RCTs) that were published through mid-2013. The research looks solid and offers some great advice on how to reduce portion sizes and overall food consumption.
First, I’ll review the findings and advice. Then, at the end of this article, I’ll tell you why this is problematic. Yes, solid research with great advice can still be problematic.
According to the review, people consistently ate more food when they were offered larger portion sizes, larger packaged portions, or larger tableware. They characterize the difference in consumption as small to moderate, but significant nonetheless at a caloric increase of 12% to 16%.
Here’s a little experiment conducted some years ago by Dr. James Painter & CBS News. It doesn’t seem at all far-fetched, and I’d be willing to bet these results would be repeated a majority of the time.
Not all that surprising, right?
Yet, look at what’s happened to portion sizes in the UK, since the 1950s:
And here’s a good picture of what’s been happening since the 90s:
Many suggestions have been aimed at industry to help get portion sizes under control. Unfortunately, they tend to run against the interests of the businesses themselves and would likely result in decreased revenues. For example, convenience stores lure in customers with gallon-sized cups of cheap, carbonated sugar-water, because those customers will purchase additional items, like snacks and gas, thereby increasing sales. Selling more for less is a tried and true business competition strategy.
As usual, change and experimentation at the personal level has far fewer barriers and dependencies.
What can we do ourselves to help reduce our portion sizes?
The best suggestions are to replace tableware with smaller plates, cups, glasses, and cutlery. Sure, you might eat additional servings, but most studies show that even if you do, you’ll still eat less overall.
OK, so what’s the problem with reducing portion sizes in order to reduce food consumption and ultimately reduce the size of the waistline?
Pure and simple, this advice assumes a calorie-dense, possibly nutrient-sparse diet.
Granted, this does describe the diets of most people in the industrialized world. However, it implicitly promotes continuing to eat the same foods, just less of them. It tells us Twinkies, Hot Pockets, chain pizza, and Coca-Cola should just be smaller.
Perhaps they should, but that’s not the only solution. It’s also unclear whether smaller portions would have lasting, long-term effects on weight control.
Another way to lose and maintain weight loss is to eat more; more volume, that is, while eating fewer calories.
On my diet, for example, I eat more food than I ever have, because the majority of my food is calorically sparse. This is a natural consequence of eating whole foods, mostly plants. Taking steps to reduce my food intake would be silly.
Many of my portion sizes are intentionally large. I leave my salads in the mixing bowl. A serving of wild rice and beans can be substantial. A fruit salad doesn’t have to be tiny. A pile of mashed sweet potatoes fills the belly.
And filling the belly leads to satiety. As the stretch receptors in the stomach expand, they provide a satisfying sense of fullness that naturally tells us when to stop eating. Our gut bacteria help, too.
Better advice would be to take steps that help us eat smaller servings of the foods we want less of, but larger servings of the foods you want more of; larger salad bowls and smaller dessert dishes.
But even there, one could drench a salad with horrible dressings, while someone else might have dark-chocolate strawberries for dessert. There’s no getting around the fact that food choices and portions require thought.
At the end of the day, what goes on your plate is more important than how much.