Does Portion Size Matter?

NPR posted an article recently claiming that a failure to standardize food portion sizes across the industry is causing us to eat more.

It notes that a medium soda at McDonald’s is smaller than a medium soda at Wendy’s; a medium coffee at Caribou bigger than a medium coffee at Dunkin Donuts.  What’s the harm?  Evidently, people will consume the entirety of whatever food or beverage they order, and if they order a medium soda at Wendy’s expecting to receive the same amount they’re accustomed to getting at McDonald’s, then they’ll end up drinking more than they wanted.


A medium is a medium? Not if you shop at different coffee joints.

This sounds like small beans until you realize that a large soda at a typical fast food restaurant today is 6 times larger than a large soda at a comparable establishment 60 years ago.

But is this really a problem?  I’m not so sure.  First of all, none of us is making food portion decisions based on our recollection of what a large soda was 60 years ago.  Even my grandfather (may he rest in peace) would recognize that today’s “large” isn’t the same as it was in his childhood.  I don’t think anybody’s being fooled on that scale.

As for deviations among sizes at different dining establishments?  Again, while I see the article’s point, I’m less sure it makes a difference.  Let’s accept for now that I will eat more fries at McDonald’s if I’m used to ordering medium fries at Burger King, and McDonald’s “medium” fries order is quite a bit larger.  Let’s say I finish the whole thing.

So, I’ve eaten more.  But what the article doesn’t account for is, I’m likely to be more satiated.  Sure, my meal will have been larger, and sure I’ll have consumed more calories. But what happens an hour later?  Four hours later?  Will I be as hungry come dinner time after the larger McDonald’s meal than I’d have been had I stuck to my smaller Burger King meal?  Or will I go for a smaller serving size then, or cut out a late afternoon snack, or skip dessert after dinner?

The article doesn’t even mention the possibility that this could occur.  And my guess is, it does.  Food we eat for lunch doesn’t just disappear into our bodies; it serves to make us more full, and to tide us over better until the next meal.  For instance, if you skipped lunch, you’d likely eat a bigger dinner than if you ate lunch.  The same thing should go for if you eat a small lunch rather than a large lunch.  Over the course of a day, or a couple days, the total caloric intake is likely to balance out, regardless of which meals are bigger, and which meals are smaller.

But even if I’m right, that doesn’t mean that serving sizes are completely irrelevant.  I think they do matter, just not for the reason given in the article.  I think they matter only because the foods we eat at fast food joints are worse for us than the foods we typically eat away from fast food joints.  So, if those extra 10 fries you may get in your McDonald’s meal, or those extra 4 ounces of soda, cause you to eat more at lunch, they may also cause you to eat less at dinner.  But if what you’re eating for dinner is a better quality, home cooked meal, that’s a bad tradeoff.  And for most of us, what we’re eating when we’re not eating at McDonald’s is very unlikely to be worse than what we’re eating when we are eating at McDonald’s.

So, inconsistent serving sizes can hurt us.  Just not in the way NPR’s article says they can. And this important.  Because there are all these studies out there that reporters keep touting in magazines and newspapers, that suggest that, for instance, if you serve yourself a smaller portion, you’ll eat less, or if you serve the same portion on a smaller plate you’ll think you ate more.  So you can trick yourself into eating less at any given meal by changing portion sizes and dinnerware.

That’s all well and good.  But if you’re hungrier then at your next meal because you ate less at your earlier meal, it’s not going to help you.  All it does is waste your time and effort caring which size plate you eat off, when in the long run these efforts are unlikely to do anything for you.

Because it’s not just how much you eat at this meal that matters.  It’s what and how much you eat at the next meal, and the meal after that.  And at some point you’re not going to keep fooling your body with smaller portion sizes.  The body wants the nutrition it wants, and will make you hungrier until you get it.  If you want to eat less, you have to eat higher quality foods. Not smaller portions of low quality food.

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