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Micro-size me, please!
February 9th, 2012
11:39 AM ET

Micro-size me, please!

How many times have you been to the movie theater, ordered a regular-sized popcorn or soda and been asked, “Would you like a large for a quarter more?” What about ordering a sandwich at your local deli? "Make it a combo!" you probably say.

We’re trained early on, oftentimes by our parents, to clean our plates or no dessert. Frequently, regardless of how hungry we are, that’s exactly what we’ll do. 

Sure, the medium-sized popcorn would’ve been entirely satisfying, but if offered the larger portion, we’re going to take it and eat it – all of it.

This phenomenon, in part, is was what sparked a series of studies conducted at a fast-food Chinese restaurant on Tulane’s New Orleans campus.

The researchers conclude, in a study published in this month’s Health Affairs,  that up to one-third of customers accepted a verbal offer to downsize their lunch, regardless of whether they were offered a minor monetary incentive to do so. Customers who accepted the downsized meals ate, on average, 200 fewer calories than did those who ordered the full-sized meals.

The truth of the matter is this: most Americans overeat, particularly the bad stuff. Recent attempts to list calories at chain and fast-food restaurants hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference as to what consumers actually order once they reach the register.

Furthermore, research by Brian Wansink, the author of “Mindless Eating,” suggests that people tend to feel satiated only when their plates are empty, regardless of how much food is actually served. Additional evidence from other studies confirms the notion that much of our overeating is due to mindless consumption. 

This is all to say that ordering food in any type of restaurant has become an automatic behavior. It’s something we do so often, in fact, that we follow what behavioral scientists call a script.

“Stopping people while they order can disrupt the expected flow and activate self-control in an environment where it may otherwise be unlikely to be activated or is absent from consumers’ minds,” write the studies’ authors.

This awareness can mean a major difference in the amount of calories consumed. Take a McDonald’s Big Mac “value meal” for example. A Big Mac, small fries and small Coke adds up to 920 calories (according to McDonald's website). A Big Mac, large fries and large Coke, on the other hand, adds up to 1,350 calories, nearly 1.5 times the amount of the smaller, more sensible option.

"People want to feel like they're getting their money's worth," says CNN Eatocracy's Managing Editor Kat Kinsman. "If you get more food, you'll feel obligated to eat it, even if you don't want it."

The studies' authors hope that, in the future, consumers will consider "downsizing" just as often as "supersizing,"  though they suggest referring to the practice as "rightsizing."

"Such a term could suggest and reinforce the more appropriate norm. For example, while the term ‘downsize’ is somewhat negative and emphasizes reduced amounts, the term ‘rightsize’ is more positive and emphasizes the optimal quality,” according to the Health Affairs report. 

Still, in the end, "a smaller portion of not-great-for-you food is still you eating not-great-for-you food," says Kinsman. "I would gladly take a massive portion of something that's good for me. I would super-size those Brussels sprouts every single time."


soundoff (145 Responses)
  1. Louise

    Take a look at the size of the plate or bowl you're eating from today. 30 years ago, that PLATE was considered a PLATTER, used to serve several people. The BOWL was a SALAD BOWL meant to serve several people. As the dishes have increased in size for single servings, so have the waistlines.

    February 9, 2012 at 18:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Roger

      Really? I have my great grand parents good china. It's the same size as my current set.

      February 9, 2012 at 21:52 | Report abuse |
    • Heather

      Got to agree with Roger. I have a set of china that's at least 60 years old. Same size as modern. Not to say that overeating is not a problem, but not for the reason you say.

      February 9, 2012 at 22:57 | Report abuse |
    • elissa

      I think the plates were the same size...I think that some of the food on them was just as calorie ridden...but my great grandparents, grandparents, and parents ate huge meals and then went out to work on the farm. They got plenty of physical exercise each and every day. The plates were the same size but the work was much more physical than the desk jobs and driving jobs of today.

      February 10, 2012 at 07:38 | Report abuse |
    • Tapati

      This applies to restaurant plates and bowls, not necessarily to our grandparents' china set. Perhaps fine dining establishments have more normal sized plates and bowls but most restaurants increased their portions. Also portions of candy bars and sodas increased. See The Portion Teller for more data.

      February 10, 2012 at 07:47 | Report abuse |
    • Ethel

      Stop government sanctioned terrorism against medical marijuana patients. For God’s sake please STOP.

      February 10, 2012 at 10:20 | Report abuse |
    • slupdawg

      Louise is correct with regards to restaurant platters. The dishes you eat from at home are likely the same size they always were, but at many restaurants, the big platters are used as well as oversized pasta bowls, and those suckers are full of food, too. Eaten at a Cheesecake Factory? Unbelievable.

      February 10, 2012 at 10:29 | Report abuse |
  2. Katie

    "Take a McDonald’s Big Mac “value meal” for example. A Big Mac, small fries and small Coke adds up to 920 calories. A Big Mac, large fries and large Coke, on the other hand, adds up to 1,350 calories, nearly 1.5 times the amount of the smaller, more sensible option."

    I cannot believe that a 920-calorie meal - which includes a cup full of empty, carbonated calories - is considered a "smaller, more sensible" option. A 920-calorie meal is NOT "small!"

    February 9, 2012 at 21:02 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Steve

      It's certainly smaller and more sensible than a 1350 calorie meal (which is all the writer here meant), but your point is a good one. A 920 calorie meal is really not a sensible option for most people, and the people it is a sensible option for aren't going to be eating fast foods to get those calories.

      February 10, 2012 at 04:36 | Report abuse |
    • Conrad Shull

      It is if you move a lot, which doesn't happen much these days.

      February 10, 2012 at 09:26 | Report abuse |
    • mm1970

      Well, if you are a moderately active female (like me) and you should eat 2000-2200 calories per day, it's not too bad. That still leaves you 1200 calories for breakfast and lunch.

      February 13, 2012 at 16:36 | Report abuse |
  3. cooldude1000

    Okay but really who is the author? Well other than that i think that we should go on super small micro sized meals!

    February 10, 2012 at 00:36 | Report abuse | Reply
    • mouselol

      Ok seriously people, when a 920 calorie meal is considered micro sized there is a problem. One thing I've definitely noticed is that all fast food for the most part is beige. Food which nourishes you is bright in color and flavor. If you knocked out all the preprocessed crap, went to the grocery store, bought the basics and your fruit and veggies and then bought yourself a treat or two which is what junk food is supposed to be a treat, ate proper portion sizes, cut out soda completely except on special occasions and got more exercise, we would not be in the situation we are in. Plain and simple.

      February 10, 2012 at 07:58 | Report abuse |
    • Daniella

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      April 8, 2012 at 01:04 | Report abuse |
  4. jesuguru

    Semantics plays a role – instead of "small/med/large", because people feel they are depriving themselves with "small", call the sizes "regular/large/extra-large". And many establishments already have "junior sizes", but it's still a slab of "meat"-product on a white-bread bun – smaller but not much healthier. Finally, most fast-food places actually do have salads, and some of them are actually pretty good (though arguably more expensive than what you could assemble yourself). CHOICES people.

    February 10, 2012 at 01:53 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Josh

      Burger King did the reverse a few years ago. Their former "55 gal drum of soda" is now called "medium".

      February 10, 2012 at 07:51 | Report abuse |
    • mouselol

      I was at the bordwalk in New Jersey a year ago and honestly was in shock when I saw people walking around with a bucket of fries. Who in their right mind needs a bucket of french fries. This is insane. The sad part is that parents are teaching their kids that this is how they should be eating.

      February 10, 2012 at 08:04 | Report abuse |
  5. larry5

    Down sizing portions is like asking a restaurant to take a pay cut. The fact is that if what they are serving has been processed then the size does not matter. It's no longer food. You should restrict your diet to eating only food. It's expensive in the short run and really cheap in the long run. Eliminating non-food item from your diet has an amazing effect on your health and energy level.

    February 10, 2012 at 06:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Josh

    'The studies' authors hope that, in the future, consumers will consider "downsizing" just as often as "supersizing," '

    Try to ask the cashier to "downsize" your Big Mac meal. They will just stare at you confused. McD's doesn't allow "downsizing" on any of its value meals (I guess there is no value in doing such), even though they do offer even smaller drinks and smaller fries À la carte.

    February 10, 2012 at 07:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Tapati

    I have asked for smaller portions and it seems to shock the wait staff and they don't seem to know how to handle it. I make it clear I will pay the same price. It would be nice if they could at least be trained to go ahead and offer less food and drink when asked to do so.

    February 10, 2012 at 07:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Maria-ji

      Or you could just exercise some self-control and eat as much as you care to – regardless of the amount you're served.
      Don't make others conform to your habits – work around the standard practice.

      February 10, 2012 at 14:47 | Report abuse |
    • Chris

      Maria-ji, so you would prefer that people eat half a plate and trash the rest rather than order half a plate? If hey are willing to pay the same price for half a plate, the restaurant would earn double for the same amount. And landfills would grow at a slower rate.
      And please don't tell me about taking the left-overs home. I find this disgusting and unsafe, especially if you have no way of keeping them refrigerated in your car and are not heading home immediately. Nothing better for bacterial growth than food sitting in an incubator-temperature car. At optimal temperature, E. coli will divide every 20-30 minutes.

      February 11, 2012 at 17:16 | Report abuse |
  8. Leigh

    Staying thin is not hard – eat less. I never finish my meal in a restaurant – I simply eat a bit and then take home the leftovers. If I know the portions are big, I'll split it with someone. Maintaining a healthy weight is all about self control..

    February 10, 2012 at 08:48 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ha

      Hope you don't finish sex like you do a meal

      February 11, 2012 at 10:48 | Report abuse |
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  9. Jannerl

    If people considered food as fuel and not just mindless entertainment, we'd be better off. I was taught as a child to eat colorful servings (fruit, vegetables, etc) and one serving. It was considered rude to walk around eating (as at the mall), and we didn't have unlimited pocket money for junk food. That being said, we also weren't bombarded with all the junk food options everywhere we turned. Parents need to set the example and teach their kids how to eat like people, not cattle...

    February 10, 2012 at 10:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Jannerl

    one nice thing – some restaurants now offer small desserts for $2 – you get a few bites of delicious dessert without overeating and it satisfies your sweet tooth...

    February 10, 2012 at 11:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. bw

    I think there are a number of issue, one being economic; restaurants don't want people taking up table space for a couple bucks. They know they can't charge too much for small portions. The material cost of food isn't that much, so if your plate comes out heaping, you don't mind paying $15 or $20. I was vacationing in another country and noticed the portions in restaurants were not heaping, but when I was finished eating, I felt that I had enough and was not hungry. I come back to the states and even salads are monstrous...loaded with cheese and sauces.

    I don't drink much soda, but one day I was driving and was really thirsty. I stopped in a fast fooderie and ordered a large Coke. Holy Frijoles, it came in a bucket...so big they had to reduce the size of the bottom so it would fit in a cup holder. Nobody needs all that.

    February 10, 2012 at 11:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. disconnected

    I love the huge restaurant meals! Food for 2 sometimes 3 days. Just eat what I want and take the rest home.

    February 10, 2012 at 12:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Nate

    The idea that you may order a 'right-sized' meal that is smaller than the normal meal is equal to saying at the original serving portion is too 'large-sized'. If you remove cost out of the decision, one may be sensible and order the smaller portion, but likely that won't be the case. The restaurant industry, and more broadly the food industry, recognizes what sells and will continue to offer what the public demands. Why go to one burger joint if the one across the street is the same cost and offers more fries for the same price? Our brains are hard wired to seek out fat, sugar, and salt as these are found less commonly in nature.

    While the answer is more complex than offering smaller portions it is a step in the correct direction as one may order a large portion and eat only half. Personal self-control is one part, food industries offering 'real' food which offers nutrition over processing and flavor is another. In the end it will be the acceptance that these foods encourage overeating though activating biochemical reactions in the brain that will be the main reason for such overeating. This is a multi-step solution.

    February 11, 2012 at 15:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Michael

    My wife and I often split a meal, not because we are poor but because we simply cannot eat the ludicrously large portions restaurants serve.

    February 11, 2012 at 22:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Sara

    I think micro-sizing is a great option. But it's hard to do in today's restaurants. For example at Panera, there is a soup and salad combo for about $7 however the salad portion of that is often enough lunch for me. But every time I request just the salad , they refuse to give it to me unless I order something else. Corporate has to take some of the initiative to put something like micro-sizing in motion.

    February 12, 2012 at 13:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  16. Zerlyn

    :Not like other ancient uleturcs, foods was normally plentiful in ancient Egypt. The Egyptians relied on the yearly flooding of the Nile to produce fertile lands that yielded crops that fed the masses. Scenes of animal husbandry and butchery, were a fixture on the walls of Egyptian tombs. No much less unusual, are scenes of fishing and fishermen along with images and hieroglyphs about the preparation of fish for eating, and pictures of birds and foul staying plucked and preserved.

    April 8, 2012 at 05:13 | Report abuse | Reply
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