Does buying bigger “value” packs at big box discount retailers mean you’re going to get fat? Not necessarily, but as Jennifer Sygo writes, there are links between the size of the packages we eat out of, and the unconscious, mindless eating that frequently leads to excess pounds.
Is bigger necessarily better? Not when it comes to food packaging, at least if you’re watching your weight.
But buying bigger is a habit many of us have adopted in recent years: With the rise in popularity of Costco, Sam’s Club and club-pack-sized food products at regular grocery stores, consumers are increasingly gravitating to larger packages of food to try to get more bang for their supermarket bucks. As far as economics go, the concept is logical, but with mounting evidence that the size of the package influences the portions we eat, it might be time for us to consider the health consequences of that jumbo box of cereal.
In recent years, a number of researchers have examined the impact of package size on food consumption, and the results have been consistent: The bigger the box, the bigger our appetites seem to become. In one of the earlier studies in this area, researchers asked women to serve what they felt were appropriate portions of pasta and oil, and found that the larger the package, the more food the women served. They also found the same thing when the subjects were asked to portion out servings of candy-coated chocolate.
Since these results only suggest that packages influence what we serve — not necessarily what we eat — researchers then asked the question of whether serving ourselves a larger portion actually leads us to eat more. Some fascinating studies on popcorn consumption at the movies have shown that, even if the popcorn is stale and unpalatable, the bigger the bag, the more people will eat. But here’s the catch: When asked to assess their intake, the subjects not only reported feeling equally full, but they actually believed that the portion they consumed from each bag was the same.
Similar results have been seen in studies of more traditional meals. In a study on sandwich size and energy intake, for example, subjects were given six-, eight-, 10- or 12-inch sandwiches on different days and told to eat as much as they liked. Sure enough, the women consumed a third more calories when eating the largest sandwich vs. the smallest, while men consumed more than 50% more. Once again, hunger and fullness ratings were largely the same, regardless of the portion consumed.
Psychologically speaking, these studies suggest our brains like to see us make a dent in the amount of food in a box, bag or package, but what about food on a plate? Using trick soup bowls that automatically refill while subjects are eating, researchers have found that people will continue to eat the soup, even after they feel full, just so that they can see the volume decrease.
We also know that the larger the plate size, the more we eat, yet once again, fullness is relatively unaffected. While our mothers might have taught us to clean our plates, the fact is that the more we are served, the more we will eat — and the bigger our pant sizes will become over time.
What about the impact of larger portions on our next meal? It would seem that, in general, we are not well-equipped to cut back, even after overdoing it the last time we ate. In one study on snack habits, researchers found that subjects who were given a larger bag of chips at snack time not only ate more chips (18% more for women, and 37% more for men), but ate the same amount of food at the next meal as subjects who were given a smaller bag for a snack.
With all of these unconscious cues triggering us to overeat, it seems almost a miracle that we’re not all stuck in a doorway somewhere. In fact, most estimates suggest that we “only” eat about 200 calories more per day now than we did before the obesity epidemic. Over time, our bodies do seem to adapt to a higher calorie intake by increasing the amount of calories we burn at rest, but eventually, this extra 10% of food seems to be catching up with us.
So what’s the solution? There is enough discussion in this area to fill an entire newspaper and then some. But based on what we have learned about our ability — or inability — to accurately judge portions, we should at least be aware of the pitfalls that can come with buying that bigger box of cereal — even if it will save a buck.
• Jennifer Sygo is a dietitian in private practice at Cleveland Clinic Canada, which offers executive physicals, prevention and wellness counselling and personal health care management in Toronto.
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