A recent study has generated the most conclusive evidence to date that people ingest more food or nonalcoholic drinks when offered larger size portions. They also consume more food when they use larger items of tableware. “The research, carried out by the University of Cambridge and published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, suggests that eliminating larger-sized portions from the diet completely could reduce energy intake by up to 16% among UK adults or 29% among US adults” (Martinez, 2015).
Overeating intensifies the dangers of which heart disease, diabetes, and many cancers, are among the most prominent causes of ill health and premature death. Up to this point, the range to which overconsumption might be attributed to over serving of large size portions of food and drink has not been known.
As part of their well-organized review of the data, researchers at the Behavior and Health Research Unit “combined results from 61 high-quality studies, capturing data from 6,711 participants. They went on to investigate the influence of portion, package and tableware size on food consumption. These results are published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews” (Martinez, 2015).
The data presents people repeatedly consuming more food and drink when offered larger size portions, packages or tableware then when offered smaller size portions. This data implies that sustained smaller size portions across the whole diet could decrease average daily energy consumed from food “by 12% to 16% among adults in the UK (equivalent of up to 279 kcal per day) or by 22% to 29% among US adults (equivalent of up to 527 kcal per day) (Martinez, 2015). The researchers did not find a large variant between men and women, people’s body mass index, propensity to hunger, or tendency to control intentionally their eating behavior.
Dr. Gareth Hollands from the Behavior and Health Research Unit, who co-led the review, says: “It may seem obvious that the larger the portion size, the more people eat, but until this systematic review the evidence for this effect has been fragmented, so the overall picture has, until now, been unclear. There has also been a tendency to portray personal characteristics like being overweight or a lack of self-control as the main reason people overeat.
In fact, the situation is far more complex. Our findings highlight the important role of environmental influences on food consumption. Helping people to avoid ‘overserving’ themselves or others with larger portions of food or drink by reducing their size, availability and appeal in shops, restaurants and in the home, is likely to be a good way of helping lots of people to reduce their risk of overeating.”
However, Hollands et al. caution that large decreases are needed to realize the changes in food consumption suggested by their findings. In addition, the study does not positively establish whether decreasing portions at the smaller end of the size range can be as effective in reducing food consumption as reductions at the larger end of the range. There is also a lack of evidence to support whether individuals will sustain decreased consumption of food and drink or just buy more of the smaller portion sizes.
Hollands et al. focus on a list of possible actions that could be taken to reduce the size, access, or appeal of larger-sized portions, packages, and tableware, including:
- Decrease serving size of energy dense foods and drinks (e. g. fatty foods, desserts, and sugary drinks)
- Reduction in the size of plates, utensils, and glasses
- Move larger portion sizes farther away in supermarkets making them less assessable to customers
- Marking single portion sizes in packaging through wrapping or marking on the container.
However, as Dr. Hollands says: “With the notable exception of directly controlling the sizes of the foods people consume, reliable evidence as to the effectiveness of specific actions to reduce the size, availability or appeal of larger-sized food portions is currently lacking and urgently needed.”
Other possible actions include:
- Reining in price reductions on larger portion sizes vs. smaller portion sizes
- Implement a reduction of coupons and promotions on larger portion and package sizes.
The researchers imply that some of the bulleted actions to limit portion size will require regulation or legislation, urged on by a demand from the public for changes to the present food climate.
“At the moment, it is all too easy – and often better value for money – for us to eat or drink too much,” said Ian Shemilt, who co-led the review. “The evidence is compelling now that actions that reduce the size, availability, and appeal of large servings can make a difference to the amounts people eat and drink, and we hope that our findings will provide fresh impetus for discussions on how this can be achieved in a range of public sector and commercial settings.”
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Hollands GJ, S. I. (2015, September 14). Portion, package or tableware size for changing selection and consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco. (C. P. Group, Editor) doi:10.1002/14651858.CD011045.pub2
Martinez, E. (2015, September 14). Larger-sized portions, packages and tableware lead to higher consumption of food and drink, Cochrane review finds. Retrieved September 14, 2015, from Cochrane library: http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/PressRelease/pressReleaseId-120622.html
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