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Smaller bowls and serving spoons means smaller portions
My mom loves ice cream and eats it pretty much every night. I'm not so sure that she'll be very happy with my telling you this but it wouldn't be the first time that I have done something wrong that my mother had to correct me for. She has lived a pretty healthy life and while I chide her for having a variety of choices of frozen delights in her freezer a small bowl of ice cream does make her happy.

Fool yourself with plate design
 If nutrition experts have trouble with portion size on oversize plates, it's not surprising that with standard dinner plates getting larger - about 36% larger, by some estimates (see Brian Wansink's Mindless Eating) - portion sizes are getting out of control.

Small Plates? Just a Myth
Just last month I reported on a study that concluded that children will eat more when presented with a larger amount of food (News Bite, 8/1/07). Another study seemed to show that using a larger bowl (or plate, presumably) would result in serving and eating more than if a regular-sized bowl is used (10/6/06).


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Will you eat more out of a larger package?

A few years ago I reported on a couple of studies done by one of my favorite food researchers, Brian Wansink. One study showed that study participants who used a larger serving spoon to serve themselves ice cream served themselves more - and ate more - than those who used a smaller serving spoon. Similarly, those who served themselves into larger bowls took more and ate more than those who had smaller bowls.

In another study, the participants served themselves with identical scoops onto standard size plates. But the snack foods they served themselves came out of two different size bowls - one twice the size of the other. Those who served themselves out of the larger bowls ate a lot more than those who served themselves out of the smaller bowls.

Researchers in Belgium designed a study to more clearly see the relationship between portion size and container size (Appetite 2012;58:814-817). Would people eat more out of a larger container, even if the amount of food in both large and small containers were the same?

They recruited 88 students from their university to participate in a snacking study. The participants were shown to private cubicles to watch an episode of a recent television show. They were randomly assigned to receive one of three variations of the same unpackaged snack, M&M's:

  • 4 servings of M&M's (about 6 3/4 ounces) in an 8-ounce bowl;
  • 4 servings of M&M's in a 24-ounce bowl; or
  • 12.5 servings of M&M's (about 21 ounces) in a 24-ounce bowl.

The researchers then measured how much of their allotted amount the participants had eaten. They found that those who ate from the 4-ounce portion in the larger bowl ate well over twice as much (almost 130%) as those who ate from the 4-ounce portion in the smaller bowl. Interestingly, those who ate from the 21-ounce portion in the larger bowl actually ate less than those with the smaller amount in the larger bowl!

What this means for you

In essence, this study shows that the size of the container affects how much you eat regardless of portion size. If you're going to eat snack foods, always choose the smaller package, and be sure to check how many portions are in the package.

First posted: March 28, 2012