New Study Confirms: Smaller Portions Help Us Lose Weight

Last Update: March 9, 2020

One needn’t look further than a monstrous fast-food combo meal, a table at the Cheesecake Factory, or the typical Thanksgiving dinner to know that when it comes to meal portions, Americans’ eyes are sometimes bigger than our stomachs.

Even still, many of us eat past the point of feeling full—a friend used to tell me his Thanksgiving strategy is to “eat through the pain”—simply because it’s there.

Maybe it’s obvious, but if less is there to eat, we eat less. And the less we eat, the less weight we gain. The converse is true as well, according to a new study of American and British consumption patterns. Conducted by researchers at the University of Cambridge, the study of American and British eaters found that we routinely consume larger portions of food and non-alcoholic drinks when they are offered in larger packages or containers, and that reducing portion sizes could decrease the daily energy consumed by 22 to 29 percent among U.S. adults.

“Our findings highlight the important role of environmental influences on food consumption,” said Dr. Gareth Hollands from the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge. “Helping people to avoid ‘overserving’ themselves or others with larger portions of food or drink by reducing their size, availability and appeal in shops, restaurants and in the home, is likely to be a good way of helping lots of people to reduce their risk of overeating.”

The study would appear to vindicate former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who, in 2012, proposed banning the sale of sugary drinks over a certain size at shops and restaurants in the city. The proposed ban was praised by many health advocates at the time, including nutrition and food policy expert Marion Nestle of New York University, who said we could take the idea even further:

“If we want Americans to be healthy, we’re going to have to take actions like this—and many more—and do so soon. It’s long past time to tax sugar soda, crack down further on what gets sold in schools, tackle abusive marketing practices, demand a redesign of labels, and extend the soda cap, no matter how controversial it may seem.”

But the soda industry fought back hard against the policy, taking out millions of dollars worth of advertisements claiming New Yorkers’ freedoms were being trampled and challenging the limits in court, ultimately winning.

Bloomberg and soda ban supporters may have been onto something, however. When that 48-ounce cup is sitting there next to the soda fountain, we’re more likely to grab it than if it’s not there. As a side note, the “Big Gulp ban” may be back in New York—but only for minors under 18.

Ultimately, it’s up to each of us to regulate the amount of food we eat. Michael Pollan puts it quite nicely: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Photo credit: looseends via Flickr

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Steve Holt

Steve Holt's stories about food, nutrition and food politics are found at Civil Eats,, Boston Magazine, and elsewhere. He's been featured in the Best Food Writing anthology. Follow his tweets and Instagrams @thebostonwriter.

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