A Diet That Works: Portion Control

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Forget the no-fat, no-carb and no-sweets diets. Portion control could be the real factor in losing and/or maintaining weight, and it also might well be a key player in combating obesity.

According to a recent study published in BMJ, large meal portions consistently lead to overeating, which leads to weight gain, though the authors noted the causes of the obesity epidemic are complex.

Theresa Marteau, PhD, director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, and colleagues explain that when presented with large plates and other tableware, consumers tend to eat and drink more than what they really need. This is all too common in fast food joints, where food portions are double sometimes triple, in size of a regular meal.

Dr. Janet Schwartz, from the Tulane University's Freeman School of Business in New Orleans, explained that reducing meal sizes would curb energy intake as much as 29 percent among U.S. adults, and between 12-to-15 percent among consumers in the U.K.

In fact, in a previous study Schwartz and her colleagues conducted, when given the choice of a large portion or downgrading to a smaller size, between 14 and 33 percent of consumers chose to downgrade to a smaller portion. Schwartz explains that often times customers recognize that portions are too big, and given the choice to downgrade, many would welcome the change.

Reducing portion sizes across the board may seem like a no-brainer, but the execution isn't all that simple. The study's authors explained that changing eating habits cannot happen overnight, though they've offered some strategies like reducing the serving size for hearty meals and drinks, and simply making the tableware and drink containers served in fast food chains and restaurants smaller. And perhaps the most critical change in restaurants would be to restrict the pricing and marketing practices that encourage consumers to get more for their money, by purchasing a larger meal portion for less than the smaller one.

Still, experts say a lifestyle change is needed to see the true effects of downsizing; and therein lies the problem. Consumers' appetites are hard to break, and exposing the calorie count on labels hasn't made much of a difference. In the study, consumers ate nearly everything that was served to them, regardless of size, and thus, Schwartz explained, reducing portion sizes could be what's needed to curb the obesity problem.