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D.iet & H.ealth : B.ody W.eight Last Updated: Nov 12th, 2006 - 20:38:00

Surroundings have a big say in food portions
By Kathy Jones
Jul 31, 2006, 13:31

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31 July, ( - The quantity of food you eat s influenced in a big way by your surroundings, according to a new study. Dietary habits are assuming importance given the proliferation of obesity and this study could explain why people are perfectly happy to eat small portions in one place, but insist on bigger food portions in another.

This tendency is called a "unit bias" by Andrew Geier of the University of Pennsylvania, the lead researchers of the present study. “Whatever size a banana is, that’s what you eat, a small banana or a big banana, whatever’s served on your plate, it just seems locked in our heads: that’s a meal," he said. Diet and nutrition experts say that supersizing of fast food and restaurant portions are one factor responsible for the soaring obesity numbers.

Experts also say that reducing the amount eaten is possible by filling up a small plate to make it look like a complete meal. But the current study says that people learn how big an appropriate food unit is from their cultures.

As an example, Geier and colleagues cite yogurt containers in French supermarkets, which are slightly more than half the size of similar containers found in US supermarkets. Geier notes that even so French people do not make up the size by consuming more than one container of yogurt.

Geier is a Ph.D. candidate who works with people battling overweight or eating disorders says that this "unit bias" is responsible for manipulating people's ideas of how big a food unit is. To illustrate their point, the researchers tried a series of experiments that are detailed in the June issue of the journal Psychological Science.

In the first experiment, the researchers put a large bowl with a pound of M&Ms in the lobby of an upscale apartment building. They placed a sign which read “Eat Your Fill ... please use the spoon to serve yourself.” This candy was placed through the whole day for 10 days running.

The only alteration was that researchers sometimes placed a spoon that held a quarter-cup, and other times people had to serve themselves with a tablespoon. The researchers found that on days when the tablespoon was placed, people consistently took more M&Ms. On an average this was two-thirds more than when the teaspoon was present.

In another experiment, the researchers placed 80 small Tootsie Rolls or 20 big ones, four times as large in a snacking area in an apartment building. Again the experiment was conducted for 10 working days. People seemed to unconsciously choose more candy by weight when it was available in larger packages.

In a similar experiment with pretzels, the same results were found. The researchers concluded that "unit bias explains why small portion sizes are effective in controlling consumption; in some cases, people served small portions would simply eat additional portions if it were not for unit bias."

In addition they argue that "unit bias is a general feature in human choice and discuss possible origins of this bias, including consumption norms."

Commenting on the study, Brian Wansink, director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab said the findings were impressive. Wansink, who has authored a forthcoming book called “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think,” says that the study effectively demonstrates the role played by the mind in dietary habits.

Wansink has studied similar phenomena and noted what consumers don't notice "the size of a package; the shape of a glass; the words on a menu or label; our proximity to food; and other invisible influences that determine how much we really eat."

In a research test at movie theaters, Wansink found that people given large buckets of popcorn ate 50 percent more than those given smaller buckets. However the cinch was that both groups felt that had consumed equal amounts. "If you give people a larger package, they'll pour more, whether it's M&Ms, dog food, plant food or anything," says Wansink.

Geier says the solution could perhaps lie in getting food companies to be a part of the effort to beat fat. Some companies are introducing products in 100-calorie packages and Geier feels this could help.

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