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Food industry urged to reduce portion sizes to fight obesity

Experts say doing so will help recalibrate what constitutes as a ‘normal’ amount of food

Photo (c) Mukhina1 - Getty Images
Renormalizing consumer perceptions of what constitutes a normal amount of food could help combat the worldwide obesity crisis, researchers say.

Findings from a new study show that reducing product portion sizes would likely result in people selecting and eating smaller portions of that food in the future.

To reach this conclusion, a team of researchers conducted a series of three experiments. Participants were told that the experiments were part of a “food, mood, and reasoning” study so as not to give away the actual goal of the research, which could throw off the study’s results.

Changing perceptions

In the first experiment, participants were randomly served either larger or smaller portions of the same meal. During the second experiment, participants were able to serve themselves whatever they wanted to eat from the same type of food provided from the first experiment.

The third experiment was conducted a week later, and participants were asked what their preferred portion size of the food was.

The researchers found that being served a smaller portion of food resulted in participants changing their perception of what a normal portion size was. As a result, participants were more likely to choose to eat smaller portions in future.

“Passive” overeating

Increases in portion sizes of commercially available food products aren’t doing anything to mitigate the nation’s obesity crisis, the researchers argued. Supersized portions have in fact been known to cause “passive” overeating, which has been linked to the emergence of America’s obesity crisis.

"There have been suggestions that shrinking the portion size of commercially available food products could be one approach to reducing overconsumption and tackling population-level obesity,” said lead author Dr. Eric Robinson.

"The present findings indicate that if portion sizes of commercially available foods were reduced, these smaller, more appropriate portion sizes may recalibrate perceptions of what constitutes a ‘normal’ amount of food to eat and, in doing so, decrease how much consumers choose to eat."

Consistently smaller portions

The current study couldn’t predict how the effect of encountering smaller portion sizes would last. The effects that were observed “were larger when we examined food intake the next day in the laboratory than when we looked at portion size preference one week later,” Dr. Inge Kersbergen pointed out.

Regularly encountering smaller portion sizes would likely be key in creating lasting results.

"Based on the idea that our immediate environment influences our perceptions of what a normal portion size is, it is likely that the effect would only last if we encounter smaller portion sizes more often than supersized portions,” Kersbergen said.

The full study has been published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

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