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Downsized Meals Help People Cut Calorie Intake

January 28, 2011

Dutch researchers say that offering downsized meal portions in addition to normal ones at cafeterias may help some people cut their calorie intake.

The researchers said that smaller portions could work in other settings also, and it might help curb obesity.  However, they said it is too soon to know if people compensate by eating more during the rest of the day.

The report is the first to look at how people’s eating behaviors change if smaller meals are made easily available.

Researchers from VU University Amsterdam enlisted the help of 25 worksite cafeterias across The Netherlands for the study.  Each was randomly placed in one of three groups.  The first group offered a hot meal two-thirds the regular size at two-thirds of the price, in addition to the existing choices.

Group two also had smaller portions but with “value pricing” so that the cost went down as portion size went up.  The third group acted as a control and offered only regular-sized meals. 

Over 300 customers answered weekly questionnaires during the 4-week study.

About 10 percent of the hot meals sold were smaller-portion meals.  Men and customers with more education were least likely to choose the smaller portion. 

The benefits of smaller portion sizes could be lost if customers made up the calories other places, so the team looked at “compensatory” eating like choosing more fried foods at mealtime, snacking or eating larger meals at home.

The questionnaire answers suggested those who chose smaller portions might have eaten more at other places, which led researchers to call for more research on snacking or eating longer meals at home.

Study researcher Willemijn Vermeer told Reuters Health in an e-mail that the number of small meals sold seemed “reasonable” and suggests that downsizing portions can have “positive consequences for public health.”

The team said that portion sizes have been increasing in U.S. and Europe for decades.  Other studies have shown that “supersizing” increases food intake and obesity risk.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over a quarter of American adults are obese, with a corresponding increase in their risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and early death.

The rults of the study were published this week in the International Journal of Obesity.

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