Naureen Aqueel

One at a time

Posted on: June 15, 2008

An edited version of this article was published in Dawn Magazine, June 15, 2008.

Just what determines how much one eats? Is it a growling stomach, a watering mouth or simply the portion size of a food item?

An interesting study by Andrew B Geier and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania published in the journal “Psychology Science” (2006) sheds light on this everyday mystery. These researchers think it is “unit bias” which determines how much one eats and explains why people tend to take one whole portion of food, whether it is big or small, as an appropriate amount.

The researchers describe “unit bias” as “the sense that a single entity (within a reasonable range of sizes) is the appropriate amount to engage, consume or consider”. To test their hypothesis, Geier and colleagues carried out a series of experiments in which they left different food items in varying degrees of unit segmentation for people to take as many units without any monetary cost.

For example, in one experiment, the researchers left a bowl of M&Ms in the hallway of an upscale apartment building with a sign that read “Eat your fill: please use the spoon to serve yourself”. Over the period that the candy was left there, some days it was left with a table-spoon sized scoop, while other days it was left with a quarter-cup scoop which was four times as big. There was no limit on how many spoon fills one could take. Passersby had the choice to take as little or as much as they wanted, regardless of which spoon was provided, but the researchers found that on average more M&Ms were taken on the days the bigger scoop was provided.

In another experiment, the researchers used pretzels to test the “unit bias”. When a bowl of 60 whole pretzels was left for passersby to help themselves from, it was found that measured by weight, more pretzels were taken as compared to the time when a bowl of 120 half pretzels was left.

Similarly, when a bowl of 80 small Tootsie Rolls was left in an apartment building, people took and consumed lesser measured by weight, than when a bowl of 20 large Tootsie Rolls was left which were four times as large.

People often take the offered portion of food as a single appropriate unit to be consumed. A plateful of food, a single wrapped candy, or a single piece of pretzel, all constitute the normal consumption unit for people and they tend to feel satisfied with it. Geier calls this a “culturally enforced consumption norm which promotes both the tendency to complete eating a unit and the idea that a single unit is the proper amount to it”.

Dietitians and researchers interested in the psychology of obesity find this to be a beneficial insight. Providing food in larger proportions can lead to overeating and obesity while smaller proportions may just hold the secret to controlled eating.

So, if you are one of those weight conscious people, it is always a good idea to have your food in smaller proportions. As for prospective hosts who already have their minds storming with ideas—yes, serving smaller proportions might just ensure that you guests don’t empty the serving dishes too fast!

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