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August 08, 2012

Just a bite or the full portion size? Dramatically smaller snack portion sizes satisfy hunger and cravings

A key reason we are getting overweight is because we eat too large portion sizes of food. But is this overeating giving us more satisfaction? Could eating smaller portions be similarly effective in decreasing food cravings or feelings of hunger as larger portions? That was the key question in the study that I conducted with Mitsuru Shimizu and Brian Wansink while visiting the Food and Brand lab. The paper is now published in Food Quality and Preference (see also full-text paper).

We presented 104 participants with either a small portion of three commonly craved snacks - chocolate, potato chips and apple pie - or substantial larger portions of the same snacks. For example, the small portion of chocolate was 10 grams, while the large portion was 100 grams. Feelings of hunger and craving were assessed just before participants started with the taste test, immediately after the taste test and about 15 minutes later. Secretly, we also measured how much participants ate.

Results show that although providing larger food portions increased snack calorie intake by 77% (103 calories), after 15 minutes, they do not reduce hunger or cravings any more than smaller portions. In other words, after 15 minutes, when all food was out of sight, everyone was equally happy.

A typical snack in the US contains about 264 calories (see Piernas and Popkin, 2010). This amount closely resembles the total calories consumed in the large portion size condition in our study (about 237 calories). Nevertheless, although participants in the small portion size condition ate considerably less (about 134 calories, which is about 51% of what people typically snack), they were equally tempted by the snacks. This shows that whereas large portions tend to increase food intake, smaller portions may make you equally satisfied. 

Going for the large portion size of their favourite food

How to stop eating when you are craving a food? One way is to make sure that there is less food in front of you in the first place. That is not simple. Large food portions are common in supermarkets, restaurants and even at home. Portion sizes of many foods have increased during the last decades and we are getting used to it. For example, snack foods and beverages are offered in increasingly large packages. Although many consumers find 'value for money' important, it would be better to stop the emphasis of getting more food for you money. Smaller portion sizes can help you limit the amount of food you eat.

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