The colossal problems we seem to be having with overweight and obesity in the UK are never far from my mind. As a general rule, I encourage those seeking to attain or maintain a healthy weight to put their focus on enhancing the quality of the diet, rather than reducing its quantity. However, it is an inescapable fact that irrespective of what we eat, how much we eat of it can have an important bearing on our weight. While I believe that our first thought should be about consuming healthy and nutritious food, it is also true that to some degree, calories count.
With this in mind, my eye was recently caught by a study published earlier this year in the Journal of Nutrition which assessed the relationship between the amount of food that is served, and the amount that is actually eaten. In this study, a group of young adults were given access to a buffet on three days and told to eat as much and as little as they wanted. On other days, these same individuals were fed a set meal comprising the same amount of food they had chosen previously. On other days, they were offered the same meal, this time expanded by 25 or 50 per cent. The point of all of this was to see if portion size fed to these individuals in some way overrode their normal appetite control.
As some might expect, serving more food to these individuals led to them eating more. But what stuck me was extent of this effect. Compared when the standard meal, individuals fed 25 and 50 per cent more food ate, on average, an additional 165 and 270 calories respectively. It has been estimated in America that the ballooning rates of obesity they have experienced over the last 20 years equate to nothing more than a daily surplus of just 30 calories. The figures are likely to be similar for this side of the pond. Even though I do not fully subscribe to the calorie principle, the results of this study suggest the effect of portion size on our weight is potentially staggering.
This relationship between portion size and food intake is not limited to adults either. In one study, children (average age 4) were fed a meal the size of which was deemed appropriate for their age. On another occasion, the researchers served the children a much larger portion of the same food, and found they ate significantly more than when offered the more modest portion. Also, when children were allowed to serve themselves, they chose and ate portions about the same size as those deemed correct for their age.
While I am most certainly not of the school of thought that believes hunger is a prerequisite for weight loss, it is nonetheless important for some of us to consider what simple measures we can take to avoid consuming food that is surplus to requirements. All-you-can eat buffets and fast food ‘value’ meals are worth missing: while these may offer value for money, we may pay a high price in terms of our health and well-being. Inside the home, it might simply be worth considering other strategies such as cooking a little less, using smaller plates, and encouraging individuals (including kids) to serve themselves rather than piling plates high. None of this, however, will work if appetites are allowed to run riot, which is one of the reasons I generally recommend snacking on fruit, dried fruit, veggies, nuts or olives between meals. Snacking on healthy foods helps ensure that even with scaled down meal portions, satisfaction is guaranteed.