Let’s talk about portion size and overeating

row of food

Page last checked: 11 August 2022.

We know overeating’s bad for us, right? It increases our risk of heart disease, diabetes and many cancers, leading causes of ill health and premature death.  But to what extent is this big problem due to big portions, big packaging and big tableware? Surprisingly no-one knew, until now.

A team at the University of Cambridge has this week published their new research, a Cochrane review, which combined the best available evidence on the influence of portion, package and tableware size on how much we eat. The data come from 6,711 people in 61 high quality studies. What they found may surprise you.

plates The bigger the size, the more we eat

People consistently consume more food and non-alcoholic drink when offered larger-sized portions, packages or tableware than when offered smaller-sized versions

Cut big portions and we cut the calories we eat – by a lot

Cutting out larger-sized portions from the diet completely could reduce energy intake by up to 16% among UK adults or 29% among US adults

carrying plate We ALL eat more when offered big sizes

You might think personal factors come into it. Don’t men and women behave differently around food? Don’t you secretly think your overweight co-worker or that bloke snacking his way round the supermarket have a problem you don’t? In fact bigger portions, packaging and tableware were associated with eating more regardless of people’s gender, body mass index, susceptibility to hunger and degree of self-control in relation to food.

What can be done?

The researchers call for action to reduce larger sizes and limit their availability and appeal. Measures like placing upper limits on serving sizes of fatty foods, puddings and sugary drinks, putting larger packages further away from shoppers, and providing smaller plates, cutlery and glasses for their consumption could help.

But buying big packets of food is better value for money isn’t it?

Yes, very often it is!  The researchers say pricing practices that make larger sizes cost less in relative terms need a rethink in the light of their research.

person What we still don’t know

  • Whether making standard size portions and packaging smaller would have a similar impact on over-consumption as reducing larger-sized portions and packaging
  • What works best, apart from directly controlling the sizes of the foods people eat, to reduce the size, availability and appeal of large portions. More research please!

Can we trust this research?

Cochrane is a global independent network of researchers, professionals, patients, carers, and people interested in health who work together to produce health information that is free from commercial sponsorship and other conflicts of interest. Cochrane reviews are regarded as a ‘gold standard’ of their kind. The reviewers judged the evidence to be of moderate quality and future research could change the conclusions.


Read the Cochrane review: Hollands GJ, Shemilt I, Marteau TM, Jebb SA, Lewis HB, Wei Y, Higgins JPT, Ogilvie D. Portion, package or tableware size for changing selection and consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2015, Issue 9. Art. No.: CD011045. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD011045.pub2. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD011045.pub2

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Let’s talk about portion size and overeating by Sarah Chapman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD011045.pub2/abstract.
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD011045.pub2/abstract.

Let’s talk about portion size and overeating by Sarah Chapman

is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International

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