Here are some of the provocative findings about portion control from the research of Cornell University’s Brian Wansink:
• Big servings. People who were given a big bucket of (stale) popcorn ate 34 percent more than people who got a smaller bucket.
• Fancy names. Cafeteria sales jumped by 27 percent when foods were given descriptive names like “Succulent Italian Seafood Filet” (instead of “Seafood Filet”) or “Belgian Black Forest Cake” (instead of “Chocolate Cake”).
• More variety, more calories. People ate about 40 percent more if they had a choice of candy that came in six different colors than if the candy came in four colors.
• Plateware matters. When people were served a brownie on a Wedgwood china plate, they rated its taste higher than when the brownie was served on a paper plate or napkin.
• Food on the table. Men ate about 29 percent more—and women about 10 percent more—if the serving dish was left on the table (rather than the counter).
• Who sets the pace? People ate more when they sat at a table with someone who ate quickly than with someone who ate slowly.
• How much did I eat? People ate fewer chicken wings if they could see the bones of the wings they’d already eaten than if the bones were whisked away.
• Healthy restaurant? People who believed that Subway meals were healthy underestimated the calories in Subway meals more than they underestimated the calories in McDonald’s meals.
• Health halo. If a bag of M&M’s or trail mix was labeled “low-fat,” people ate more than if the label didn’t say “low-fat.”
• Exercise rewards. People ate more at dinner—and especially more dessert—after they went on a “scenic walk” than after they went on an (identical) “exercise” walk.
• Cover up. Covering the clear window of an ice cream freezer with butcher paper led people to take 30 percent less ice cream from it.
Brian Wansink is the John S. Dyson Professor of Marketing in the Applied Economics and Management Department at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where he directs the Food and Brand Lab. He was the executive director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion from 2007 to 2009, and is the author of Mindless Eating–Why We Eat More Than We Think (Bantam-Dell, 2006) and the forthcoming Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life (William-Morrow, 2013).