Are Your Snacks Playing Tricks on You?

Potato Chip

I recently read an interesting Wall Street Journal article on the psychology of food packaging. It shouldn’t surprise you that food companies will try their hardest to trick you into eating as much of their snack as possible. The more you eat, the more you buy, and the more weight you gain.

However, you can fight this. The first step is understanding the psychology of how we eat and how we perceive our portion sizes.

By giving college students stacks of potato chips, researchers demonstrated the importance of food packaging. One group of students got a canister of potato chips with a red chip placed at various intervals. After eating a certain number of regular chips, they encountered a red chip that served as an “artificial barrier” that reminded snackers of the number of chips they consumed. The students who had this barrier ate less than half the amount of chips than those who didn’t have the red chips.

It shows that little reminders of how much we’re eating can help us eat less and lose weight faster. As a result, food companies are doing what they can to eliminate any artificial barriers for their snacks to compel you to eat more. For example, individual wrappers on candy got in the way of how much consumers ate. Hence, Hershey Co. came up with Reese’s Minis, a small, unwrapped version of their classic Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. It makes it easier to pop candy into your mouth on the go and load up on calories before you realize it.

Size Does Matter

It’s not just wrappers or packages, serving size also dictates how much you eat. In a study on cafeteria serving sizes, those who were served larger plates of pasta for the same price consumed 43% more calories than those who were served smaller portions. Both groups felt just as satisfied with their meals. People tended to eat more if more food was placed in front of them. Researchers have demonstrated this concept with foods like popcorn, macaroni and cheese, and soda.

This is why New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a restriction on the available sizes of soda last year, which was eventually blocked by a judge right before implementation. One of the arguments included the fact that liquids don’t fill us up as much as solid food, which makes it much easier for us to drink hundreds of calories of soda or juice without realizing it.

Despite our tendency to eat more when more food is available, you can learn how to fight it and cut the calories!

Practical Tips for Portion Control

Now that you know a little more about the power of food packaging and portions, follow these tips to prevent yourself from falling prey to over-consumption:

  • Buy single-serve snacks: Big box stores may be a great place to save money by buying food in bulk, but that family-sized bag of potato chips may compel you to eat more than what you’ve bargained for. Try buying single servings of snacks instead, if possible.
  • Contain your snacks: If you can’t buy single servings, break out the Tupperware. Instead of feeling compelled to eat whatever snack companies tell you to eat, measure it out for yourself. Use small, 6 t0 8 ounce containers to store your snacks.
  • Break out the small plates: 54% of Americans eat until their plates are clean. If you place a portion of pasta on a smaller, 8-inch plate, it looks like a meal; however, if you place the same amount on a 12-inch dinner plate, it looks like a meager side. To avoid this trap, stick to smaller plates.
  • Watch what you drink: Portion control does not only apply to food. Over-consumption of sugary drinks also fill you up with unnecessary calories. Use smaller glasses or, better yet, just drink water.
  • When in doubt, order a small: Not sure what will fill you up at a restaurant? A recent study found that restaurant meals contain 60% more calories than meals served at home. Order small.
  • Sharing is caring: Instead of forcing yourself to eat a massive piece of cake or pasta dish, share it with a friend! You can order one main dish and add a side veggie dish to satisfy both you and your friend. You might even have room to share(!) dessert!