Rather, more drastic actions – like eliminating large options, changing how food is priced and maybe even sanctioning companies that offer too-large of options – might be necessary to help consumers reset what they perceive as an appropriate servicing size, argues Theresa Marteau from the University of Cambridge and colleagues in an article published in The BMJ Dec. 2.
The size of portions, packages and tableware have increased dramatically over the years, they note, pointing to data from the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control and the World Cancer Research Fund that found since 1993 the average serving of steak and kidney pie has increased 50% and the average serving of chicken curry with rice is up 52%. A slice of bread also is up 11%.
“As this exposure to larger portions has become more common these sizes have come to be viewed as appropriate, with consumption correspondingly increasing,” they write. “This suggests that reduction in portion size might, over time, recalibrate consumption norms, even if there was some initial resistance from consumers and industry.”
While the study includes what the researchers say is the “most conclusive evidence to date” showing people eat more when served more, the concept is not new.
Indeed, for the past decade consumers have sought to control their portions by buying smaller packages and industry has responded by offering more individually wrapped packages and “portion-controlled snacks,” The Hartman Group notes in a recent blog post.
But, as The Hartman Group notes and The BMJ study suggests, offering smaller options has not been the saving grace hypothesized for overeating and obesity.
“Reduced-portion sizes of food and beverage products (a significant growth segment of the restaurant industry) can be found in abundance, and yet consumers still struggle with controlling intake,” The Hartman Group writes.
This suggests to the market research firm that “the problem was not one of the package size, but one of human behavior.” It adds: “The actual activity of regulating portion sizes proves significantly more challenging.”
With that in mind, Marteau and her colleagues suggest addressing the problem of overeating from the opposite direction. Rather than simply offering smaller packs and preserving consumers’ choice, they suggest reducing the availability of the largest portion and package size.
They also suggest making large packs less accessible, such as limiting the size of products allowed at checkout, aisle ends and special displays. Likewise, restricting portion and pack sizes in marketing could help consumers rein in how much they eat, the study says.
“Reducing portion sizes across the whole diet to realize large reductions in consumption may mean reverting to sizes … similar to those in the 1950s. This would involve reductions of over 50% for some energy dense products,” and could reduce consumption in the US by 22% to 29% among adults, they say.
The researchers acknowledge that many consumers likely buy larger packs because they cost less per serving than smaller packs. Therefore, they suggest restricting price promotions on larger portions and packages – a move that likely would result in consumer push back.
Because many consumers shop for value, few manufacturers likely would voluntarily pave the way for these changes, which would put them at a “first mover disadvantage,” the study notes.
Therefore, they encourage regulatory changes that would level the playing field. They also suggest public organizations, such as schools and hospitals, institute smaller portions first so consumers can start experiencing how smaller portions are still sufficient.
The Hartman Group, also suggests manufacturers look for more ways to meet multiple consumer needs at once, including portion-control packs that offer additional value.