Under-size me

by The Listener / 22 February, 2013
Studies are showing that the smaller the portion, the less you are likely to eat.
Nutrition - under-size me

Remember the seafood diet? I see food and I eat it … All joking aside, when faced with more food, we really do eat more. Whether it’s breakfast, lunch, dinner or snack time, the bigger the portion of food, the more we eat. And, of course, we snack more frequently now than we did a few decades ago. If those snacks are super-sized, it adds up to a lot more calories … unless you take the advice of Dutch and US researchers, who reckon a snack half the size of our super-sized ones can satisfy hunger or cravings.

Under the guise of conducting a taste test in an American food laboratory, the Dutch and US research team recruited 104 college students to eat chocolate, potato chips and apple pie. Unbeknown to the students, they had been allocated either smaller-sized snack portions – 10g of chocolate chips, 40g of apple pie and 10g of potato chips – or substantially larger portions – 100g of chocolate chips, 200g of apple pie and 80g of potato chips. In total, those in the smaller-portions group were served food containing 816 kilojoules (kJ) of energy, while those in the larger-portions group were each offered a massive 5375kJ. During the “taste test”, students could eat as much as they wanted of their serving, and their overall hunger and cravings were measured before, immediately after and then again 15 minutes later.

Hunger and cravings are two quite separate drivers of eating. Whereas hunger is controlled by physiological signals from our body telling us when we need to eat, cravings are more a psychological state of mind – that is, cravings are more an intense desire to eat food. Cravings aren’t necessarily driven by hunger but rather by particular foods; cravings are often stoked by tempting food cues in our environment – the snack machine loaded with potato crisps in the work cafeteria, for example, or a chocolate bar beside the counter at the petrol station.

The students offered larger snack portions ate some 992kJ, whereas those offered the smaller portions had just 561kJ of food. Being given larger portions resulted in 77% more calories being consumed, or an extra 431kJ of energy.

One might logically expect those who polished off the big snacks to feel more satisfied. In fact, 15 minutes after eating, all the participants – whether they ate small or large portions – reported similar reductions in hunger and cravings.

More research is needed to see if those who ate smaller portions somehow compensate and overeat on another occasion over the next day or two. But it seems unlikely given studies have found when we eat oversized portions we don’t compensate for this overconsumption at a later time.

The great news is smaller portions of commonly craved foods can satisfy cravings and hunger as well as larger portions and with only a fraction of the energy content. Given we may snack between two to five times a day, the addition of an unwanted 431kJ each time will certainly add up in both total energy intake and sheer wastage of food – why eat it if you don’t need it?

The best way to stop eating when you crave a food is therefore to have less food in front of you, according to lead researcher Associate Professor Ellen van Kleef. Simply put, smaller portions can help you limit the amount of food you eat.

So how much chocolate is enough to satisfy a craving? “Less than half as much as you think,” says study co-author Brian Wansink, a professor of consumer behaviour at Cornell University.

“If you want to control your weight, here’s the secret: take a bite and wait. After 15 minutes all you’ll remember – in your head and in your stomach – is that you had a tasty snack.”

Email: nutrition@listener.co.nz, or write to “Nutrition”, c/o Listener, PO Box 90783, Victoria St West, Auckland 1142.
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