Heidi Spurrell | 28th May 2021 | 4min read


By Nefelie Kalavrezou

Over the last decades portion sizes served to consumers have grown larger, which ultimately has contributed to the rise of overweight and obesity levels. Indeed, something that has happened so subtly yet is having a serious impact on our health and planet. A key culprit for this portion increase is all due to a new phenomenon known as “Portion Distortion”, which can be defined as the perception that large portions are appropriate amounts to eat at a single sitting. As discussed in a recent BBC podcast, we must beg the question on how we can reverse such measures of servings when we have been misled to believe that these amounts are ‘regular size’. An example of this is that pizza on average is 50% larger than in 1990, skewing our perception on what we deem as normal. In addition to this, as the size of our own plates have increased so have plates, cutlery and glasses. As a result of “Portion Distortion”, people are consistently eating and drinking greater amounts when they are offered more, and we are cued more by the food in front of us rather than feeling of hunger (where we should intuitively eat).But at what cost? Undeniably, over consumption contributes towards the obesity epidemic which is not restricted to industrialized societies. In developing countries, it is estimated that over 115 million people suffer from obesity-related problems, and on the environmental side, the excess amount of energy used from energy production & food waste accounts for an extra 12-15% surplus energy. Certainly, we are producing a lot more than necessarily needed. Globally we are losing (in the production stage) or wasting (in the consumption stage) one third of all food produced for consumption.

The rationale behind such large sizes in fact creates good commercial sense for companies, leveraging cheap ingredients and our own psychology. The price of food actually makes up a small proportion of their expenses, and so companies can raise the price, offer more and consumers comprehend it as good value for money.


Photo: Diabetes.co.uk
Portion distortion: The change in portion size over 20 years


There have been many ways to prevent overeating: from nutrition labelling & warnings, to governments considering taxes, fines and rules. Nevertheless, the intended impact is falling on deaf ears. Businesses have condemned these levers for improving eating habits, and consider them detrimental to their business and consumers feel it limits their own choices.

A suggested alternative, however, is possible: one of which is epicurean nudging, which would encourage people at once towards healthier, more profitable and more enjoyable eating behaviours, thus aligning the interests of governments, businesses and people. Epicurean nudging emphasises the multi-sensory properties of foods (flavour & taste) on the menu and by the waiter, focusing on how much we eat (the quality) rather than what we eat (the quantity). People who experienced this on average ate 17% less and were willing to pay 16% more.

Businesses have been attempting to employ different strategies in order to combat overeating and environmental challenges such as food waste. For instance, Melco resorts in Macao feed around 16,000 staff per day and when they introduced Winnow (AI waste technology) which informed employees of what they were throwing away at the point of disposal in the bin, this changed behaviour and reduced waste from 144g per person to 125g.



Photo: Pierre Chandon at TEDxINSEAD event “A New Tomorrow”


Nevertheless, some argue that more government regulation is necessary to determine portion size in order to have a level of playing field rather than businesses simply exploiting the fact they can commercially benefit from these inflated portion sizes. As of recent measures, there has been government intervention in China where it is now illegal to order too much food or share binge-eating videos. For some, this may be a somewhat confusing piece of legislation, however, Chinese President Xi Jingping has called for this anti-food waste law as there is a deepening concern and problem with China’s threatened food security. Restaurants could be fined up to $1,550 for misleading consumers into ordering excessive amounts of food and causing food waste, as well as a $16,000 fine for TV stations and online media that make or show binge-eating videos. For the moment, it is not clear how regulators will enforce the rule on individual ordering.

This podcast concluded on the importance of the pleasure of eating and that consumers must be reminded of this pleasure. People tend to forget that sensory pleasure peaks during the first few bites, which then diminishes with each subsequent bite. If we think of eating a big chocolate bar, the first bite gives us the highest pleasure. The overall pleasure is not the sum of pleasure, but the average: in other words, people often eat portions that are too large from a pleasure standpoint.

Certainly, governments taking a position and setting a standard is important to lead us in the right direction. What will be more important, however, is how it is enforced and whether habits will actually change over the long-term. Only time will tell how the phenomenon of “Portion Distortion” will unfold.