The Psychology of Eating Is Portion Control

Losing weight is as simple as regularly eating fewer calories than you burn. Unfortunately, such an easy concept is made very difficult by the sheer quantity of food that most people confront on a day-to-day basis. We have all seen restaurant portions steadily increase in size; the increase seems to have, caused skewed views of what constitutes a reasonable portion.

Portions and Value

One reason diners often eat too much food is that a large portion, correctly or not, translates to a better value. Some restaurants will pile base starches, such as noodles, rice or potatoes, onto the plate in massive quantities before placing the accompanying entrée of meat or vegetables. Because the plate is full, the customer sees a lot of food for the price.

At an Asian fast-food buffet, for example, diners must choose either rice or noodles as a base for the entrée. These eateries are notorious for ladling on hefty portions of starch as a way to fill up the plate or bowl, and a base of noodles might account for 400 calories on its own. Once meats, vegetables and other ingredients are added, the meal explodes with calories.

Psychology of Portion Sizes

Although some diners practice portion control by eating a reasonable amount and taking the rest home, many others try to finish their meals, even if the portion sizes are distorted. It’s a natural inclination to clean a plate, but when over half of the plate is filled with calorie-laden starch and filler ingredients, serious weight gain is usually the result.

For many people, beverages and side dishes are practically invisible. They don’t think twice about eating a mound of rice or French fries, despite these filler ingredients‘ high calorie count. People also rarely stop to think about the number of calories in an extra-large fountain soda. By cutting back on filler foods and high-calorie beverages, most Americans could significantly reduce their calorie intake without limiting other fare.

A study by Tulane University sought to test the hypothesis that diners are satisfied with smaller side dishes. While selecting rice or noodles at an Asian restaurant, diners were asked to save 200 calories by eating a half-portion side dish with a full-portion entrée. Of the 970 customers involved, 14 to 33 percent agreed to the reduced portion. Interestingly, the volume of leftovers from the participants’ meals was nearly identical to that of non-participants. The experiment showed that diners eat similar portions regardless of how large a meal is.[i]


There are dozens of ways to implement psychology in weight loss. Because people first confront food with their eyes, rather than their stomachs, mental appetites are the first hurdle to overcoming portion distortion. You can save calories on restaurant food by requesting that half of your meal be boxed up before it even reaches your table; if you don’t see it on the plate, you’re not likely to miss it. Therefore you won’t need to rely on self-control to keep from eating too much.

At home, you can easily change portion sizes by altering the size of your dishes. Even taking an inch off the diameter of a plate can result in hefty rice in cartoncalorie savings over time. Tall, thin glasses give the illusion of holding more liquid than shorter, fatter ones, even if they hold the same volume. Plate color makes a difference too. Researchers have determined that we tend to serve less food on a plate of a contrasting color. For example, white potatoes appear more ample when served on a black plate.

As restaurant owners realize that consumers are becoming more health conscious, portion sizes will become more reasonable. Some changes, such as decreasing the default size of beverages and doling out smaller portions of French fries, are already happening in fast-food chains across the country. Applebee’s, for instance, has adopted calorie-conscious menus.

Perhaps soon a marked shift will be made in the way Americans view food and mounds of starches will be replaced with nutrient-rich vegetables. Until then, it’s up to health-conscious consumers to remain vigilant and lead the way by paying attention to what they put into their bodies. If the majority of consumers demand smaller portions, the obesity epidemic in the country will begin to turn around.