A Few Reasons Why It’s Hard to Know How Much We’re Eating.

A Few Reasons Why It’s Hard to Know How Much We’re Eating.

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

Today: A partial list of why it's hard to monitor how much we're eating.

The Wall Street Journal ran an interesting piece today, The Problem with Portions: From Applebee's to Yoplait, Food Makers Struggle to Find the Size That Sells.

It caught my eye, because I've thought a lot about portion sizes as part of my research for my forthcoming book on how we make and break habits. In that book, I identify all the strategies we can use to shape our habits. To find out when the book goes on sale, you can sign up here.

Portion size is an issue for the Strategy of Monitoring. Monitoring is one of the four “Pillars of Habits,” along with the Strategies of Foundation, Scheduling, and Accountability. The Strategy of Monitoring doesn’t require that I change what I’m doing, only that I know what I’m doing. This is crucial to habit formation, because once I recognize what I’m doing, I may choose to behave differently.

Monitoring has an almost uncanny power. People who keep close track of just about anything tend to do a better job of managing it.

But several aspects of eating that make monitoring difficult. Consider just a few observations:

1. It’s often surprisingly hard to gauge “one serving.” We’re poor judges of how much we’re eating, and studies suggest that we can eat servings that are about 20% bigger or smaller than a “serving size” without realizing it. Also, in what’s called “unit bias,” we tend to finish a serving if it seems like a natural portion of “one,” and we tend to take one serving, no matter what the size. In a study where people could help themselves to big pretzels, people took one; when people were instead offered big pretzels cut in half, they took one half-pretzel.

2. Consuming something from the container makes it impossible to monitor how much we’re taking. Whether the product is candy or shampoo or cat food, the bigger the package, the more people use. (In what seems like an aspect of the same principle, I’ve noticed that I finish books faster when I have a bigger stack from the library.)

3. Many ways of consuming food involve multiple bite-sized servings, such as dim sum, tapas, hors d’oeuvres, petit fours, appetizers ordered for the table, which makes it hard to know how much we're eating -- which is likely part of the appeal. One way to monitor in such situations? Save the evidence left behind: the pile of bones, the peanut shells, the candy wrappers, the day’s coffee cups or soda cans or beer bottles.

4. We often tell ourselves that something doesn't "count." Ah, that popular "This doesn't count" loophole, as described in the hilarious Strategy of Loophole-Spotting! Taking bites while cooking, eating off a child's plate, sharing an order of dessert...

5. Context matters. One study of package design showed that people avoid the smallest and largest beverage sizes; therefore, if the smallest drink size is dropped, or a larger drink size is added (such as the Starbucks Trenta), people adjust their choices upward.

If you're interested in the psychology of portion sizes, check out Brian Wansink's Mindless Eating and Lisa Young's The Portion Teller.

How about you? Have you found ways to monitor portion size -- or identified situations that make it difficult to monitor?

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