Food for Thought

When it comes to healthy eating, we’re often concerned about the “what.” What ingredients and what products we’re putting on our plate to ensure that we’re eating well and enjoying it in the process. But maybe it’s not the “what” that’s so important as the “how much.” We’re talking about portion sizes.

Certainly controlling portion sizes is an essential part of healthy eating, oversized portions are a hallmark sign of our fast food loving society, but according to new research, smaller portions can actually play a role in our overall enjoyment of both food and drink.

Conducted by Stanford’s Baba Shiv and Emily Garbinsky and Boston University’s Carey Morewedge, the research looked at how feelings of satiety affect how soon you eat the same food again.

Using crackers as the food of choice, what they found was that those participants who ate a lower portion of crackers actually had a higher enjoyment of those that ate a larger portion of crackers. That makes a pretty good argument against overindulgence. While we think that stuffing ourselves with our favorite foods is going to make us feel good, having just a little bit might actually make us feel even better.

“People have a tendency to overindulge in foods they enjoy, not realizing the effect. This is the argument for moderation, if we needed one,” says Shiv, the Sanwa Bank, Limited, Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “You actually take more pleasure in it.”

That means you may enjoy your wine more if you only have one glass of wine instead of two. That chocolate cake? The second piece is tempting, but you won’t appreciate it as much as the first one.

While the research is certainly interesting for us as individual eaters, it’s also interesting for food companies that have come to see supersized portions as the standard offering. According to Stanford Business:

This research has implications for questions surrounding portion sizes, which have reached unhealthy sizes in the United States. For instance, 96% of the main entrees at the 400 largest chain restaurants in the country do not meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) nutritional recommendations, according to research by Helen W. Wu and Roland Sturm of the Rand Corp. The entrees deliver too many calories for the nutrients they contain. The new research shows that restaurants and food companies that super-size may be shooting themselves in the foot by reducing the number of times a consumer buys.

In fact, the research “suggests that large portions may be somewhat detrimental to companies because they extend the amount of time that passes until repeat consumption occurs,” says Garbinsky, a Stanford GSB PhD student and the study’s lead author.

Does that mean we might see smaller portion sizes at restaurants in the near future? One can only hope. In the meantime, think about how much more you’ll be enjoying and appreciating your food if you eat a little less of it. That’s a great argument for healthy eating.

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Image: James