12 January - 20 June 2016

Portion size reduction could ‘renormalize’ portion size perception

A study, conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool and published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has explored the concept that reducing food portion sizes in food products could change our perception of a ‘normal’ amount to eat, therefore reducing obesity levels over time.

A study, conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool and published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has explored the concept that reducing food portion sizes in food products could change our perception of a ‘normal’ amount to eat, therefore reducing obesity levels over time.

Increased portion and food product sizes in the past has been linked to the major public health issue of obesity, therefore reducing portions delivered by the food industry could be a helpful factor in tackling obesity.

In the current study, Robinson et al. wanted to test if providing smaller portion sizes could change perceptions of a ‘normal’ amount to eat and therefore result in people gradually consuming less food and achieving a lower calorie diet.

Three separate experiments were carried out with a group of 40 participants who were not on a weight-loss diet and had no specific dietary requirements at the time of the study, so as not to affect their eating habits during the experiments. The participants were unaware of the true purpose of the study, having been given a cover story of taking part in a ‘food, mood and reasoning’ study, to ensure un-biased results.

In experiment one, Robinson et al. served participants a random portion size (large or small) of the same meal for lunch, consisting of quiche and salad. In experiment two, the following day, they were left to serve themselves as much as they desired, from the same food type. In experiment three, a week later, participants reported their preferred portion size of this meal to be served for lunch.

The results gathered from the three experiments collectively showed that being served a smaller portion of food resulted in participants changing their perception of what a regular portion size was and this resulted in participants choosing to eat less food in future. From the results, Robinson et al. concluded that consumer preferences are partially driven by environmental influence and reducing food portion sizes could recalibrate perceptions of a ‘normal’ amount of food to eat and therefore have the positive effect of decreasing how much consumers eat by choice. They indicate that their results suggest that downsizing the default size of food products may result in the “renormalization” of smaller food portion sizes.

In discussion, the study notes the suggestion that smaller food product portion sizes could “be one approach to reducing overconsumption and tackling population-level obesity” and indicates that its findings indicate that if portion sizes of commercially available foods were reduced “these smaller, more appropriate portion sizes may ‘normalize’”. Robinson et al. also note however that it is unclear from the study how long these re-calibration effects could last but suggest they would persist “provided that consumers continue to encounter smaller-sized portions of the food item in question more frequently than supersized portions”. In conclusion the researchers suggest further research is needed in this area but note that this could be a step in the right direction in reducing obesity levels.

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