Sunday, July 30, 2006

Portion Sizes Have Gone Down A Slippery Slope

Geier says nobody knows what the right portion size is anymore

This Washington Post story about a new study regarding the role of portion sizes in the current obesity epidemic is certainly one worth exploring, but unfortunately is not the be-all, end-all regarding why people keep getting fatter.

Soon-to-be Dr. Andrew B. Geier, a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, conducted two research experiments to test his theory of "unit bias" which presupposes the amount of food you are given to eat is the appropriate portion size.


A large bowl of M&Ms were placed in the lobby of an upscale apartment building with a sign that read: "Eat Your Fill ... please use the spoon to serve yourself." Geier left the candy out for ten days in a row and rotated between using a spoon that held a quarter-up and a teaspoon.

The results? Not surprisingly, when the larger scoop was out, the people gave themselves an average of nearly two-thirds MORE M&Ms than the ones who had the teaspoon.


Geier placed a bowl of Tootsie Rolls in a snacking area of an apartment building for ten days in a row alternating between 80 small Tootsie Rolls or 20 of the larger size that are four times as big as the smaller ones. The same amount and weight of candy was kept constant throughout the experiment.

The results? The people took MORE by weight of the larger Toosie Rolls candies than they did the smaller ones.

Geier admits his "unit bias" theory is not the only reason why there were differences in the amount of food taken, but it certainly was an influencing factor that cannot be overlooked.

This subliminal eating hypothesis is quite an intriguing one to me as someone who used to weigh over 400 pounds and never really thought much about what I was putting in my mouth on a daily basis. I'm sure if there was food available like the ones in the experiment, then I would have been one of the people who took a LOT more with the larger scoop and portion sizes. When you're fat, you don't even pay attention to things like that. You just don't.

Geier said this is psychological conditioning that goes on in our brains regarding the supposed normality of what a portion size should be.

"Whatever size a banana is, that's what you eat, a small banana or a big banana," Geier noted. "Whatever's served on your plate, it just seems locked in our heads: that's a meal."

This is so very true. How did our society get to this point where portions are so large and almost universally accepted as "normal?" It's time for a brief history lesson.

I was talking with someone the other day about the whole "Supersizing" phenomenon and whether they remember how that all got started. When the person started scratching his head with a bewildered look on his face, I reminded him that we have the 1993 blockbuster movie "Jurassic Park" to blame.

McDonald's was one of the first fast food joints to begin cross-promoting movies at their restaurants (today it's everywhere!) and they introduced in 1993 what they called at the time their "Dinosize" meals with a 39 cents upgrade for a larger fries and soft drink. Because of the large dinosaurs in the movie, McDonald's thought it would be cute to make super-duper sized portions of soda and fries in these ready-to-serve meals. Before this happened, people were forced to make their own meal by ordering their Big Mac, fries and Coke separately. But not anymore!

After the movie promotion had ended, McDonald's realized they had stumbled on a marketing miracle and decided to keep their "Dinosize" meals which we now know as Extra Value Meals and the upgrade which is known as Super Sizing. I wonder how much "unit bias" is in play all because of the larger and larger portions at McDonald's. Of course, all of the other fast food restaurants followed suit and you can't go out to eat anywhere today without some "meal deal" on the menu. Sigh.

Do you even realize that the smallest size French fries at McDonald's right now is even larger than the LARGE used to be back before the days of Super Size? That's right, today's portions are out-of-control and nobody is upset about it (well, maybe Morgan Spurlock)! Yikes! Of course, there has been a proportional increase in the prices at McDonald's as well which keeps on lining the pockets of this junk-food giant even more to manufacture their garbage to the masses in bigger and bigger containers. Ugh!

"Yeah, would ya like that quintuple bacon cheeseburger in a bucket with your pound of fries and gallon of Coke?!" Eeeek! Is this closer to reality in the very near future or what? God help us all.

Our culture is as much to blame for this as anything, Geier remarked, because we just accept what is placed in front of us is the amount we should eat. This goes back to the importance of reading labels for the portion sizes on everything you eat so you are not overconsuming more than you should, although I don't think it is reasonable to suggest people will eat less just because something is labeled "100-calorie" or not.

How many people even realize a 20-ounce bottle of Coke is 2 1/2 servings?! I would venture to say not many. That's why we are in a crisis in this country that shows no signs of reversing without dramatic changes in the food and beverage industry.

Geier's findings were published in the June 2006 issue of the journal Psychological Science.

I recently blogged about another similar research study by Cornell University professor Dr. Brian Wansink who said bowl and scoop sizes impacted the amount of ice cream that was consumed by his study participants. However, I took him to task on his conclusions stating that real human behavior would dictate people who received smaller portions would go back for seconds if they could, but that was inconclusive in his study. I'm still waiting to hear back from him about that.

This story notes that Dr. Wansink is releasing a book in October 2006 about his research entitled "Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think". It may be worth reading when it comes out in a few months. If I can get my hands on a copy, I'll review it for you. :)

But portion sizes in the United States have gone down a dangerous slippery slope over the past couple of decades and how many people have actually noticed or cared? It really has gotten crazy now, but how do you turn back the clock and expect people to STOP getting that Super Double Big Gulp from 7-11 that they are used to now and to suddenly START settling for the Gulp size. HA! Good luck on changing that person's mind about portion size!

In fact, Geier did another experiment using soda in the dining hall on his school's campus to see if the "unit bias" would kick in when students were offered a 10-ounce glass versus a 16-ounce glass. Like the M&Ms and Tootsie Rolls experiment, Geier fully expected the students who were given the smaller portions of soda would consume less. WRONG-O!

What happened was the students who were given the 10-ounce option didn't think that was enough soda to drink, so they got TWO of them for 20 total ounces, four ounces more than the 16-ounce servings that the other students chose.

"I guess I went below what is culturally construed as a unit of soda," Geier conceded.

Yep, and that's why it will be very difficult to change people's habits now. Humans are easily manipulated into certain behaviors by changes in their environment, especially the subtle ones. We have become conditioned to EXPECT more and more which is why a 19-pound hamburger shows up on a restaurant's menu!

Since we have seen such an incremental growth in the portion sizes in America, is it possible that we could also have an incremental decrease over the next decade or two and nobody would notice? It's probably possible, but not very likely. We are fighting an uphill battle and the harsh winds of change are blowing strong and hard to keep us from going back to the way it used to be now. That slippery slope is difficult to grip now.

That's why individuals, not society must make the right choices for themselves about what is an acceptable portion size to eat for them. Weight problems don't have to exist like they do today once people realize just how out of proportion so-called societal norms have become.

The "unit bias" can become a non sequitur when people become their own agents of change and start a weight loss revolution for themselves by bucking the cultural trends that surround them. That's what livin' la vida low-carb did for me and I'll never be the same again!

You can send Andrew B. Geier an e-mail regarding his study at

7-31-06 UPDATE: Andrew Geier e-mailed me about my blog post today.

Congratulations on your weight loss! That is awesome. Thank you for the kind words on my article and posting it on your blog.


We need more research on the psychology of why we eat the way we do and Andrew Geier is a pioneer in this. I look forward to hearing many more great things out of him regarding issues involving diet in the future.


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home