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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