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Portion Size of Food Affects Energy Intake in Normal-Weight and Overweight Men and Women

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Abstract

Large portions of food may contribute to excess energy intake and greater obesity. However, data on the effects of portion size on food intake in adults are limited. We examined the effect of portion size on intake during a single meal. We also investigated whether the response to portion size depended on which person, the subject or the experimenter, determined the amount of food on the plate. Fifty-one men and women were served lunch 1 d/wk for 4 wk. Lunch included an entrée of macaroni and cheese consumed ad libitum. At each meal, subjects were presented with 1 of 4 portions of the entrée: 500, 625, 750, or 1000 g. One group of subjects received the portion on a plate, and a second group received it in a serving dish and took the amount they desired on their plates. Portion size significantly influenced energy intake at lunch (P < 0.0001). Subjects consumed 30% more energy (676 kJ) when offered the largest portion than when offered the smallest portion. The response to the variations in portion size was not influenced by who determined the amount of food on the plate or by subject characteristics such as sex, body mass index, or scores for dietary restraint or disinhibition. Larger portions led to greater energy intake regardless of serving method and subject characteristics. Portion size is a modifiable determinant of energy intake that should be addressed in connection with the prevention and treatment of obesity.
Am J Clin Nutr 2002;76:1207–13. Printed in USA. © 2002 American Society for Clinical Nutrition 1207
Portion size of food affects energy intake in normal-weight and
overweight men and women
1–3
Barbara J Rolls, Erin L Morris, and Liane S Roe
ABSTRACT
Background: Large portions of food may contribute to excess
energy intake and greater obesity. However, data on the effects of
portion size on food intake in adults are limited.
Objectives: We examined the effect of portion size on intake dur-
ing a single meal. We also investigated whether the response to
portion size depended on which person, the subject or the exper-
imenter, determined the amount of food on the plate.
Design: Fifty-one men and women were served lunch 1 d/wk for
4 wk. Lunch included an entrée of macaroni and cheese con-
sumed ad libitum. At each meal, subjects were presented with 1
of 4 portions of the entrée: 500, 625, 750, or 1000 g. One group
of subjects received the portion on a plate, and a second group
received it in a serving dish and took the amount they desired on
their plates.
Results: Portion size significantly influenced energy intake at
lunch (P < 0.0001). Subjects consumed 30% more energy (676 kJ)
when offered the largest portion than when offered the smallest
portion. The response to the variations in portion size was not
influenced by who determined the amount of food on the plate or
by subject characteristics such as sex, body mass index, or scores
for dietary restraint or disinhibition.
Conclusions: Larger portions led to greater energy intake regard-
less of serving method and subject characteristics. Portion size
is a modifiable determinant of energy intake that should be
addressed in connection with the prevention and treatment of obe-
sity. Am J Clin Nutr 2002;76:1207–13.
KEY WORDS Portion size, serving size, serving method,
energy intake, food intake, obesity, adults
INTRODUCTION
The current eating environment is characterized by convenient,
relatively inexpensive, highly palatable foods served in large por-
tions. The portion sizes of foods that are sold for immediate con-
sumption have increased in recent years (1, 2), and this trend par-
allels the rising prevalence of obesity in the United States (3).
Frequent opportunities for the consumption of large quantities of
food, especially food that is high in energy density, may be con-
tributing to excess energy intake and thus the development of
obesity (4).
To link large portion sizes of food to excess energy intake and
the increased prevalence of obesity, the effect of portion size on
food intake must be established. Only a limited number of studies
have examined this relation (5–9). Two studies conducted in
1
From the Department of Nutritional Sciences, The Pennsylvania State Uni-
versity, University Park, PA.
2
Supported by grants DK39177 and DK59853 from the National Institutes
of Health.
3
Reprints not available. Address correspondence to BJ Rolls, Department
of Nutritional Sciences, 226 Henderson Building, The Pennsylvania State Uni-
versity, University Park, PA 16802-6501. E-mail: bjr4@psu.edu.
Received November 21, 2001.
Accepted for publication February 22, 2002.
young men have provided conflicting results. In one study, when
investigators manipulated the portion size of lasagna, results indi-
cated that the men consumed a significantly greater amount of
food only when there was at least a doubling in portion size (5).
In contrast, a preliminary study indicated that men consumed a
significantly greater amount of macaroni and cheese when they
were served portions that were as little as 27% larger (6).
In the studies that found an effect of portion size, subjects were
presented with predetermined portions, and they ate the food
directly from the plate on which it was served. In other studies of
food intake regulation, in which the subjects themselves deter-
mined the amount of food to place on their plates, they ate a rel-
atively consistent weight of food (10–13). These differing results
suggest that the serving method may be an important determinant
of whether portion size has an effect on intake. We hypothesized
that when the subjects themselves determined the portion of food
on the plate, the amount presented in a serving dish would not
affect intake, but when the experimenter determined the portion
on the plate, portion size would influence intake.
It is possible that some individuals, such as those who are over-
weight or obese, are particularly susceptible to the influence of
portion size. Results are inconsistent, however, in studies that
tested whether obese individuals are more likely than normal-
weight individuals to be responsive to variations in portion size
(7, 9), to clean their plates (14, 15), or to have impaired ability to
estimate portion size (16). Independent of body weight, a ten-
dency toward either dietary restraint or disinhibition could influ-
ence how people respond to increases in portion size (17, 18). We
predicted that subjects with high dietary restraint, who have a ten-
dency to deliberately restrict their food intake, would resist this
environmental influence and would be minimally affected by por-
tion size. On the other hand, subjects with high disinhibition, who
are more prone to eat in response to environmental cues, would be
directly influenced by portion size. We also investigated whether
women and men had different responses to variations in portion
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1208 ROLLS ET AL
size; in an earlier study, men were found to be less likely than
women to stop eating for external reasons, such as having cleaned
their plates (19).
SUBJECTS AND METHODS
Subjects
We recruited 51 male and female participants through adver-
tisements in local and university newspapers and posters. Poten-
tial subjects were interviewed by telephone to determine that they
were aged 21–40 y, were in good health, were not currently fol-
lowing a weight-loss diet or trying to gain weight, were not using
medication known to affect food intake or appetite, were not ath-
letes in training, were not pregnant or lactating, had no food aller-
gies or food restrictions that would affect food intake, and regu-
larly ate 3 meals/d. Potential subjects completed the following
questionnaires in our laboratory: the Eating Inventory (20), which
measures dietary restraint (possible score: 0–21), perceived
hunger (possible score: 0–14), and disinhibition (possible score:
0–16); the original-scale Eating Attitudes Test (EAT–40; 21),
which detects symptoms of an eating disorder (possible score:
0–120); the Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale and Depression
Status Inventory (Zung Questionnaire; 22), which is an indicator
of depression (possible score: 0–63); and a detailed demographic
questionnaire. Measurements of weight and height were also taken
at this time. Candidates were included in the study only if their
body mass index (BMI; in kg/m
2
) was 20–28. Potential subjects
were excluded if they scored 30 on the EAT–40 or 40 on the
Zung Questionnaire or if they reported that they disliked any of
the foods to be served at the test meal. The subjects were not
informed of the actual purpose of the study but were told that the
purpose was to examine the effects of lunch on taste. The subjects
were compensated for their participation. The Institutional Review
Board of The Pennsylvania State University approved all aspects
of the study.
Design
The experiment used a between-subjects design with repeated
measures within each group. On 4 separate days, subjects came to
the laboratory to eat lunch, which included an entrée of macaroni
and cheese. In each experimental condition, subjects were pre-
sented with 1 of 4 portion sizes of the lunch entrée: 500, 625, 750,
or 1000 g. The smallest portion (500 g) of the macaroni and cheese
was selected to be larger than typical intakes under laboratory con-
ditions. The order of presentation of the portion sizes was bal-
anced across subjects, and the test days were separated by 1 wk.
The method of serving the lunch entrée was the between-subjects
factor: one group of subjects received the entrée on a plate, and
the other group of subjects received it in a serving dish and took
the amount they desired onto their plates. Subjects were assigned
to the 2 groups so that the groups were matched for age, sex, BMI,
and scores for dietary restraint and disinhibition.
Procedures
Subjects were asked to keep their evening meal and their activ-
ity level as similar as possible on the day before each test day and
to refrain from eating or drinking (except water) after 2200. Sub-
jects were also asked to refrain from drinking alcohol on the day
before and throughout each test day and to eat a similar breakfast
on the morning of each test day. During each test day, subjects
were instructed not to consume any food or energy-containing
beverages for 3 h before the test meal and not to drink water for
1 h before the test meal. On completion of each test meal, subjects
were instructed not to consume any food or energy-containing
beverages for the next 3 h and to eat a similar dinner on the
evening of each test day. Subjects kept a brief record of their food
intake and activity patterns on the day before and the day of each
test meal; the purpose of the record was to encourage compliance
with the study protocol.
On each test day, subjects reported to the laboratory at their
designated lunchtime. At that time, the food and activity records
were collected and subjects completed a brief questionnaire to
determine whether they felt well, had consumed alcohol in the pre-
vious 24 h, had taken any medications known to affect appetite or
food intake, or had consumed any food or energy-containing bev-
erages in the 3 h preceding the test meal or water in the 1 h pre-
ceding the test meal. The experimenters reviewed the records and
questionnaires to monitor compliance with the study protocol.
Subjects who failed to comply with the protocol were scheduled
for another test day.
At the start of each test meal, subjects were seated in individ-
ual cubicles and were not allowed to read or do work during the
meal. Lunch consisted of commercial macaroni and cheese in var-
ious portion sizes (Kraft Foods, Inc, Glenview, IL), carrot sticks
(30 g), a snack-size milk chocolate bar (17 g), and water (1 L).
Subjects were instructed to eat as much or as little of the maca-
roni and cheese as desired and to drink as much or as little of the
water as desired. Subjects were required to consume the carrots
and chocolate in full. All food items were weighed before and
after the meal to determine the amount consumed to the nearest
0.1 g, and the duration of the meal was recorded to the nearest
0.5 min. For persons in the serving-dish group, the amount of
macaroni and cheese that was removed from the dish but left
uneaten on the plate was also measured. Energy and macronutri-
ent intakes of each food were calculated with the use of nutrition
information from the food manufacturers. The energy density of
the macaroni and cheese was 6.8 kJ/g.
Subject groups
Subjects were assigned to 1 of 2 groups (plate group or serving-
dish group), which differed in the method in which they were
served the lunch entrée. Subjects in the plate group received the
macaroni and cheese on individual 30-cm plates and ate the food
directly from their plates. Subjects in the serving-dish group
received the entrée in a large serving dish and were instructed to
serve the food from the dish onto a 30-cm plate before eating; they
were allowed to serve themselves as many times as desired. The
test meals of subjects in the serving-dish group were videotaped
in an unobtrusive manner. The experimenters viewed the video-
tapes and counted the number of serving spoonfuls of the entrée
that were taken from the serving dish during each meal.
Visual analogue scale ratings
Subjects completed ratings of hunger and satiety immediately
before and after lunch. Subjects rated their hunger, thirst, prospec-
tive consumption (how much food they thought they could eat),
nausea, and fullness on visual analogue scales (VASs). For exam-
ple, subjects answered the question “How hungry are you right
now?” by rating hunger on a 100-mm line anchored by “not hun-
gry at all” on the left end and “extremely hungry” on the right end.
Other anchors consisted of the phrases “not at all” and “extremely”
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PORTION SIZE AND ENERGY INTAKE IN ADULTS 1209
TABLE 1
Subject characteristics
1
Plate group Serving-dish group
(n = 14 M, 13 F) (n = 12 M, 12 F)
Age (y) 22.0 ± 0.4 22.5 ± 0.6
Height (cm) 171 ± 2 170 ± 2
Weight (kg) 69.3 ± 2.0 69.5 ± 2.4
BMI (kg/m
2
) 23.5 ± 0.4 23.9 ± 0.4
Dietary restraint score
2
4.9 ± 0.8 6.7 ± 0.9
Disinhibition score
2
3.6 ± 0.4 3.4 ± 0.4
Hunger score
2
4.9 ± 0.5 4.5 ± 0.6
Depression score
3
29.5 ± 1.0 29.5 ± 1.0
Eating attitudes score
4
7.0 ± 0.6 8.0 ± 0.7
1
x
± SEM. There were no significant differences in means between sub-
ject groups.
2
Eating Inventory (20).
3
Zung Questionnaire (22).
4
Eating Attitudes Test (21).
combined with the adjectives “thirsty,” “nauseated,” and “full.” The
anchors for the rating of prospective consumption were “nothing
at all” and “a large amount.” Immediately before and after lunch,
subjects were also presented with 10-g samples of macaroni and
cheese, which were rated for palatability (pleasantness of appear-
ance, odor, taste, and texture) with the use of VASs. Subjects were
excluded from the experiment if their rating for the taste of the
entrée was < 40 mm on the first test day.
Discharge
Subjects completed a discharge questionnaire at the end of the
study, which asked what they thought was the purpose of the study,
whether there were any factors that affected their responses, and
whether they noticed any differences between the test days. The
questionnaire also asked whether the subjects had eaten any foods
between meals that were unreported and whether the amount of
macaroni and cheese offered was appropriate. Subjects also com-
pleted the Eating–Then and Now questionnaire (23), which was
used to assess past and current eating habits, including frequency
of cleaning the plate.
Statistical analyses
Data were analyzed with the use of the SAS System for
WINDOWS, version 8.1 (SAS Institute Inc, Cary, NC). Food intake (g),
energy intake (kJ), mean duration (min), and VAS ratings (mm) were
analyzed with the use of a mixed linear model (PROC MIXED, SAS
Institute, Inc) with repeated measures. The fixed factor effects in the
model were portion size (500, 625, 750, and 1000 g) and serving
method (plate or serving dish); subjects were treated as a random
effect. The interaction between portion size and serving method was
tested for significance before examination of the main effects of these
factors. The residuals from the model for food intake at lunch were
examined for normality and equal variance. Regression analysis was
used to calculate the within-subject slope for food intake (amount
eaten/amount presented). We used t tests to compare data on subject
characteristics between groups. Results were considered significant
at P < 0.05. For subjects in the serving-dish group only, the average
amount of macaroni and cheese per serving spoonful was calculated
by dividing the weight of food removed from the dish by the number
of serving spoonfuls taken (assessed from the videotapes).
We did not define criteria for identifying outlying values of
food intake for individual subjects, because we were testing
whether intake increased with portion size. Instead, we identified
subjects who consumed the entire portion of macaroni and cheese
presented at any test meal. Subjects who left < 30 g macaroni and
cheese uneaten were considered to have consumed the entire por-
tion and were defined as plate cleaners. Mean intakes and ratings
were analyzed both with and without subjects who cleaned their
plates in any condition.
To examine the influence of subject characteristics on the rela-
tion between portion size and intake, the factor of subject sex was
added to the model. The interactions of serving method, portion
size, and sex were tested to determine the factors to use in the
model. Continuous subject characteristics were then tested as
covariates in this model. Results are reported as means ± SEMs.
RESULTS
Subjects
Fifty-nine subjects were selected for participation, but 8 subjects
did not complete the study: 5 were excluded for reporting a low rat-
ing for the taste of the macaroni and cheese, 2 had scheduling con-
flicts that prevented completion of the study, and 1 withdrew from
the study because of illness. The final sample consisted of 51 nor-
mal-weight and overweight men and women aged 21–30 y. There
were 27 subjects in the plate group and 24 in the serving-dish group;
the 2 groups did not differ significantly in any of the subject char-
acteristics that we measured (Table 1). Male and female subjects did
not differ in age (men, 22.6 ± 0.5; women, 21.9 ± 0.4 y), scores for
disinhibition (men, 3.3 ± 0.3; women, 3.7 ± 0.5) or hunger (men,
5.2 ± 0.6; women, 4.2 ± 0.5), or scores on the EAT–40 (men, 8.0 ± 0.5;
women, 6.9 ± 0.7). Men, however, had a significantly greater
BMI than women had (men, 24.3 ± 0.4; women, 23.0 ± 0.4;
P = 0.04), whereas women had significantly higher scores for
dietary restraint (men, 4.2 ± 0.8; women, 7.4 ± 0.9; P = 0.007)
and depression (men, 27.8 ± 0.9; women, 31.3 ± 0.9; P = 0.008).
Food and energy intake
Subjects in both groups consumed significantly greater
amounts of the lunch entrée as portion size increased (P < 0.0001;
Figure 1); there was no interaction between serving method and
FIGURE 1. Mean (± SEM) food and energy intake of the lunch entrée
by condition of portion size in each subject group (, plate group, n =
27; , serving-dish group, n = 24). Means with different letters were signi-
ficantly different with both groups combined, P < 0.05.
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1210 ROLLS ET AL
TABLE 2
Ratings of hunger and satiety after lunch by subject group and portion size
1
Plate group (n = 27) Serving-dish group (n = 24)
Portion size Portion size
500 g 625 g 750 g 1000 g 500 g 625 g 750 g 1000 g
“How hungry do you feel right now?” 14 ± 3.0 10 ± 2.1 8 ± 2.0 11 ± 2.7 9 ± 1.8 9 ± 2.0 8 ± 2.4 7 ± 1.6
“How thirsty do you feel right now?” 17 ± 2.7 17 ± 2.6 17 ± 2.7 16 ± 2.8 15 ± 2.9 15 ± 2.8 10 ± 2.3 12 ± 3.3
“How much food do you think you could eat right now?” 13 ± 2.0 9 ± 1.8 9 ± 1.2 10 ± 1.7 11 ± 1.8 9 ± 1.9 8 ± 1.7 8 ± 1.5
“How nauseated do you feel right now?” 10 ± 2.5 8 ± 1.9 8 ± 2.0 12 ± 2.4 2 ± 0.4 4 ± 1.0 7 ± 3.0 5 ± 2.0
“How full do you feel right now?” 79 ± 2.9 82 ± 2.3 80 ± 2.6 81 ± 3.1 83 ± 2.8 85 ± 2.6 87 ± 2.6 82 ± 4.2
1
x
± SEM. There were no significant differences in means between conditions in either group.
portion size. When both subject groups were combined, the par-
ticipants consumed 335 ± 15 g of the 500-g portion, 374 ± 19 g of
the 625-g portion, 400 ± 22 g of the 750-g portion, and 434 ± 26 g
of the 1000-g portion. Energy intakes in the 4 conditions of por-
tion size were 2286 ± 103, 2553 ± 126, 2728 ± 149, and 2962 ± 181 kJ,
respectively. Thus, subjects consumed 30% more food (99 g) and
energy (676 kJ) when presented with the largest portion than when
presented with the smallest portion. Intakes in all conditions were
significantly different from each other (P < 0.05), except for those
between the 625-g and 750-g conditions (P = 0.097). The propor-
tion of the lunch entrée that was eaten decreased significantly as
the portion size increased (P < 0.05); subjects in both groups con-
sumed 67% of the smallest portion but only 43% of the largest
portion. Intake of water at lunch did not differ by condition of por-
tion size (data not shown).
Plate cleaners
Five persons in each group were identified as plate cleaners,
because at 1 test meal they consumed all but 30 g of the entrée
that was presented to them. All 10 of these persons consumed the
entire 500-g portion, 5 consumed the entire 625-g portion, 3 con-
sumed the entire 750-g portion, and 1 consumed the entire 1000-g
portion. Eight of the plate cleaners were men and 2 were women.
When plate cleaners were excluded from the analysis, the effect
of portion size on intake remained; subjects in both groups con-
sumed a significantly greater amount of food as portion size
increased (P < 0.0001). Thus, plate cleaners were not responsible
for the effect of portion size on intake. With plate cleaners
excluded, subjects in both groups consumed 27% more food (79 g)
and energy (536 kJ) when they were presented with the largest
portion than when they were presented with the smallest portion.
Visual analogue scale ratings
Ratings of hunger and satiety
Across all conditions of portion size, no significant differences
were found before lunch in ratings of hunger, prospective con-
sumption, fullness, thirst, or nausea in either group (data not
shown). After lunch, there were also no significant differences
between conditions in these ratings (Table 2). In particular,
although food intake increased as portion size increased, ratings of
hunger and fullness after lunch did not differ.
Ratings of palatability of the entrée
Across all conditions of portion size, no significant differences
were found before lunch in ratings of appearance, odor, taste, or
texture of the sample of macaroni and cheese in either group (data
not shown). Taste ratings of the sample presented before lunch
indicated that overall the entrée was well liked (70 ± 3.0 mm).
After lunch, there were also no significant differences across con-
ditions in ratings of palatability in either group. The taste ratings
after lunch for both subject groups combined were 38 ± 0.0, 37 ±
0.1, 34 ± 0.2, and 34 ± 0.9 mm in the 500-, 625-, 750-, and 1000-g
conditions, respectively.
Changes in ratings (from before lunch to after lunch)
There was no effect of serving method or portion size on the
magnitude of the changes from before lunch to after lunch in the
ratings of either hunger and satiety or palatability (data not
shown). Subjects in both groups and across all conditions of por-
tion size had similar changes in all of the ratings.
Influence of subject characteristics
Results of the analysis of the subject characteristics indicated
that both men and women responded to portion size, such that
increasing the portion size resulted in a significant increase in food
and energy intake (P < 0.001; Figure 2). Female subjects, how-
ever, ate a mean of 30% less food than did male subjects. Regres-
sion analysis showed that, for every 100-g increase in portion size,
the men had an increase in intake of 25 ± 7 g, whereas the women
had an increase of 13 ± 3 g; these slopes were not significantly
different (P = 0.11). None of the other subject characteristics—
age; height; weight; BMI; scores for dietary restraint, disinhibi-
FIGURE 2. Mean (± SEM) food and energy intake of the lunch entrée by
condition of portion size in males (; n = 26) and females (; n = 25). Data
from both of the serving method groups were combined. Means with differ-
ent letters were significantly different with both sexes combined, P < 0.05.
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PORTION SIZE AND ENERGY INTAKE IN ADULTS 1211
tion, or hunger; or scores on the EAT–40, Zung, or Eating–Then
and Now questionnaires—covaried with the effect of portion size
on the intake of macaroni and cheese. Thus, men and women, nor-
mal-weight and overweight individuals, and restrained and unre-
strained eaters all showed a response to portion size.
Meal duration and serving frequency
The analysis of meal duration showed that portion size signi-
ficantly affected the amount of time that the men spent eating
(P < 0.003) but had no significant effect on the amount of time
that the women spent eating (P > 0.05). The men spent an average
of 12 ± 0.8 min eating when offered the smallest portion of mac-
aroni and cheese and an average of 15 ± 0.8 min eating when
offered the largest portion. The women ate for a mean of 11.5 min
regardless of the portion size offered.
The videotape data for the serving dish group showed that the
total number of spoonfuls taken from the serving dish did not dif-
fer significantly across conditions of portion size. Subjects served
themselves a mean of 7 times regardless of the amount of food in
the serving dish. Thus, as the portion presented in the dish
increased, subjects took a significantly greater amount per serving
spoonful (P < 0.05). By calculation, the mean amount per spoonful
was 49 ± 3, 52 ± 3, 64 ± 7, and 55 ± 3 g in the 500-, 625-, 750-, and
1000-g conditions, respectively. Subjects in the serving-dish group
left some plate waste in only 15% of their meals; the amount
ranged from 2 to 34 g. Thus, after these subjects served the food
onto their plates, they left very little of it uneaten.
Discharge
Most subjects (94%) did not correctly report the purpose of the
study. Three subjects (2 from the plate group and 1 from the serving-
dish group), however, correctly reported that the purpose of the
study was to investigate whether the amount of food that was
offered affected the amount that they ate. Less than one-half
(45%) of the subjects reported that they noticed differences in the
portion sizes of the macaroni and cheese that were presented to
them. Whereas 26 subjects reported that the amount of macaroni
and cheese offered was appropriate for them, 23 subjects indicated
that the portion sizes were too large, 1 subject indicated that some
portion sizes were appropriate and some were not, and 1 subject
indicated that the portion sizes were too small.
DISCUSSION
The results of this study show clearly that increasing the portion
size of macaroni and cheese affects food intake in adults during a
single meal. There was a significant relation between the amount
of food offered and energy intake. In contrast with the few previ-
ous studies, we showed that persons responded to both small and
large increases in portion size and that there was little attenuation
of the response over the range of portions tested. Presumably,
however, regardless of the amount of food available, people will
reach a maximum amount of any one food that they can consume.
Further intake may be curtailed by sensory-specific satiety for that
food or by general satiety factors such as gastric distension (24).
The finding that the ratings of hunger and fullness after the
meal did not vary, although intake increased with the amount of
food that was presented, suggests that portion size influences the
development of hunger and satiety. Thus, when offered bigger por-
tions, subjects ate a larger amount before they reached satiation.
In addition, portion size did not affect the change in the hedonic
response to the entrée after it was consumed. Typically, as a food
is eaten, the pleasantness of its sensory properties decreases, and
this is one factor limiting further intake of that food (25). In the
present study, the rating of pleasantness of the taste of the maca-
roni and cheese did decrease after lunch; the decrease in the rat-
ing was similar for all conditions of portion size, however, despite
substantial differences in the amount of food consumed. There-
fore, the magnitude of the decrease in sensory ratings was not
influenced by the weight of food that was consumed or by the
food’s energy content. In contrast with these findings, previous
studies showed that the weight or volume of food consumed
affects both the ratings of hunger and satiety and the change in the
pleasantness of food (26–28). It is possible that the larger portions
of food offered in the present study altered the subjects’ expecta-
tions about the amount that they could eat, which in turn affected
their ratings of hunger, fullness, and the pleasantness of the food.
Previous work shows that sensory ratings can be strongly influ-
enced by cognitive factors (29).
We hypothesized that the response to portion size would be
influenced by whether it was the subject or the experimenter who
determined the amount of food on the plate. Several experimental
studies have shown that, when adults serve themselves, they eat a
consistent weight or volume of the available foods, regardless of
changes in the energy density of the foods (10–13). In those stud-
ies, the amount of food presented in the serving dish remained
constant. In the present study, the amount of food in the serving
dish was varied, and subjects did not eat a consistent amount of
food. Portion size affected food intake similarly, whether the
adults served themselves or whether someone else determined the
portion on the plate. In contrast, a recent study showed that young
children consumed a mean of 25% more macaroni and cheese
when it was served on their plates than they did when presented
with the portion in a serving bowl from which they could help
themselves (30). It is not clear why the adults and children dif-
fered in their responses to portion size when they served them-
selves. Previous studies have indicated that children aged 3–5 y
are shifting from eating primarily in response to physiologic sig-
nals to eating that depends more on environmental influences such
as portion size (8, 31). They may have eaten more when a bigger
portion was served to them because they have learned that clean-
ing the plate is what is expected and that they will be rewarded for
doing so (31). When serving themselves, children may pay more
attention to hunger cues. The adult subjects, on the other hand,
may have become so accustomed to eating in response to the
amount served that they were influenced by portion size even
when they chose how much to put on their plates. This robust
effect of portion size did not simply relate to a tendency to clean
the plate or to avoid wasting food: few participants ate all of even
the smallest portion, and the self-reported tendency to clean the
plate did not relate significantly to the effect of portion size.
It is possible that people have the expectation that the amount
of food served to them by others is appropriate. A survey initiated
by the American Institute for Cancer Research found that > 25%
of the Americans polled said that they decided how much food to
eat at a single sitting on the basis of how much food they were
served (32). In a subsequent survey, 67% of those polled said that,
when dining out, they finish their entrées most or all of the time
(33). This is problematic because the number of Americans who
consume a significant portion of their food intake outside the
home, where others determine portion size, has risen sharply since
the 1970s (34). The portion sizes used in the present study were
by on June 17, 2010 www.ajcn.orgDownloaded from
1212 ROLLS ET AL
large, but they were consistent with those being offered in restau-
rants (35). Results from several studies have indicated that the fre-
quency of consuming food in restaurants is positively associated
with intakes of energy and fat and with body weight and body fat-
ness (36–38). Because greater numbers of Americans are eating
out than ever before, it is likely that the large portions typically
served in restaurants are contributing to excess energy intake in
the United States. It will be of interest in future studies to assess
the effects of portion size in natural settings such as restaurants,
cafeterias, and family meals. Recent studies suggest that it is likely
that, in such settings, intake will be affected by portion size. For
example, research showed that the portion of popcorn offered at
movie theaters affected intake (39), and that the bigger the pack-
age size of foods such as pasta or candy, the greater the amount
that subjects removed for consumption (40).
We hypothesized that some people would be more susceptible
to the influence of portion size than would others. Our results
show, however, that there was a substantial increase in food intake
in response to larger portion size in both men and women with a
range of values for BMI and scores for dietary restraint, disinhi-
bition, hunger, eating attitudes, and depression. Thus, the ready
availability of foods in large portions is likely to be facilitating the
overconsumption of energy in many persons. From our results, we
were unable to identify particular characteristics of persons that
make them either more or less susceptible to the effect of portion
size on intake. Although we found no relation with age, the sub-
jects in the present study were aged 21–30 y. Future studies should
assess adults at a wider range of ages, to determine whether the
effect of portion size varies with age.
Most people are unaware of what constitutes an appropriate
portion (16, 41) and, as in the present study, do not notice varia-
tions in portion size (32). Because portion size is a modifiable
environmental factor, it should be addressed with regard to the
treatment and prevention of obesity. One approach would be to
educate people about appropriate portions and about interpreting
nutrition labels. In addition, strategies that limit the amount of
food available, such as eating at restaurants that offer smaller por-
tion sizes, setting aside part of the serving at the beginning of the
meal, or serving smaller amounts of food when eating at home,
can help consumers avoid excess energy intake. Research indi-
cates that the addition of portion-controlled meals to an energy-
restricted, weight-loss diet increased the amount of weight that
was lost (42).
The results of this study show that the amount of food that is
presented during a single meal directly affects energy intake.
Additional research is needed to further understand the contribu-
tion of portion size to the regulation of food intake and the devel-
opment of overweight. Future studies should determine whether
the effects of portion size on intake are seen with different types
of foods. Macaroni and cheese is an amorphous food; ie, it has no
distinct shape and is affected by the shape of its container. People
find it particularly difficult to judge the portion size of amorphous
foods (43). It will be of interest to assess whether intake is affected
by increasing the portions of foods that come in discrete units or
packages, such as sandwiches or snack foods, because research
shows that there is a strong tendency for people to consume entire
units of foods (44). The present study examined the effect of por-
tion size in a single meal. It is important to determine whether the
effect is sustained over a longer period and whether people com-
pensate for excess energy intake that is due to the consumption of
large portion sizes.
We thank Tanja VE Kral and Angela Sabol for their assistance in conduct-
ing the experiment and Elizabeth A Bell for her advice on study design and
administration.
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