Can Restaurants Promote Healthy Eating By Offering Smaller Portions?

In a new study published in the journal Health Affairs, researchers tackled the question of whether customers would be willing to take smaller portions at a Chinese restaurant, if the option was offered. The surprising findings? A full 1/3 of customers happily agreed to downsize their side of fried rice. Not only that, but those who ordered smaller portions ended up eating less overall, taking home the same amount in leftovers as those who started out with larger portions.

In an interview with NPR, the lead author of the study, Janet Schwartz, notes, “People are willing to downsize, but you have to ask them to do it. They’re not going to do it on their own.” Schwartz attributes this to the fact that portion size isn’t usually seen as something negotiable when you’re ordering at a restaurant. People assume asking for smaller sizes isn’t an option, even when many people may jump at the chance.

Another interesting finding highlighted by the study: informing diners of calorie counts doesn’t seem to make a difference. About 21% of people agreed to take the smaller portion without even hearing that it would shave 200 calories off their meal. Only 14% made their decision after being told the amount of extra calories they’d find in a “normal” 10 ounce portion of rice.

Price doesn’t appear to be a motivating factor either. Offering a 25-cent discount for downsizing the side dish didn’t cause people to change their portions in any meaningful numbers. And nobody compensated for the smaller side dish by eating more of the entrée than they normally would – the average amount of leftovers for both groups was around 2 ounces each.

Schwartz credits the success of the study to the fact that it gives customers a choice early on. It’s much easier to exercise self-control before the food hits your plate – when faced with a giant pile of rice, it’s hard to stop eating. People feel guilty about not being able to finish their plates when eating out.

In the end, it’s not just about what you eat. A huge part of the problem is in how much people eat. Schwartz claims the methodology used in her study is more effective than efforts to simply offer healthy alternatives, or label restaurant food with nutrition information. As she told NPR, “What this study brings to the table is an actual reduction of calorie intake, something that just labeling foods with a calorie count hasn’t done.”


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Photo credit: Unique Hotels Group

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Stenpney John
Past Member 1 years ago

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Ashlyine B.
Ashlyine B.2 years ago

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Sue H.
Sue H.3 years ago

It would be nice if restaurants simply gave you the option for smaller portions or let you order from the childrens menu. I used to just split side dishes with my friends. I do like leftovers though, it's a second meal for me.

Sarah M.
Sarah M.3 years ago

Yes, please. Smaller portions and lower prices would be great.

michelle B.

Makes perfect sense to cut serving sizes!

colleen p.
colleen p.3 years ago

it is a common trick. use small plates. you think it is full. I do the same mistake if I made a salad with dinner. if I have a big bowl I use make to much.

I make to much for anything because I think I have to "fill it". if I do a "stir fry". I think i need 2 carrots, 2 celery stalks, a huge onion or 2 small ones. a green pepper. if I have cans I think I need the can of water chest nuts or bamboos. and then if it has meat and i have a chicken breast I think I need the whole thing.

then of course I'd wind up adding pasta, a package of pasta.

oops. i was supposed to feed 3 people. looks like we have leftovers for a week.

Biby C.
Biby C.3 years ago

They definitely should! But downsizing is not so much about the health issue. As Hannah S. have pointed out, those who have big appetites will just double up the order. When I'm in America, I feel really guilty about having to leave food unfinished. It's such a waste but as I'm a traveller, I cannot pack leftovers as I do not have access to facilities to reheat the food. This is so different from what I'm used to at home. All Chinese restaurants at home (i.e. Malaysia), no matter what price range, offers SML portions.

Lika S.
Lika S.3 years ago

I think that during "dinner" hours, that lunch sized orders should be available. At lunch, "snack" size should be available, just to have it.

Even a place like McDonald's... Like what happened to their All American meal that had 1 cheeseburger (or hamburger), small fries and small drink?

Another way would be to add more veggies into the meal somehow. Like many Chinese places offer an eggroll and/or bowl of soup with the dinners. Why not an Asian salad instead?

Carol H.
Carol H.3 years ago

Smaller portions would have to come from a different menu altogether, since Americans need to feel they are "getting their money's worth" - Many people go to 'buffet' diners, claiming they don't eat as much, but in reality are actually eating more. The food itself, is over-processed, over-cooked, and generally "bad" for you anyway.