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."

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