Barnard College's Monthly Magazine
By Safa Siddiqui
“Would you like to supersize that?” A Hulk burger materializes snugly tucked between a Godzilla fountain drink and King Kong fries. Ah, now you remember why you saw the poster on the subway with the caption: “Portions have grown, so has type 2 diabetes.” It’s easy to conclude that the supersizing phe- nomenon has become a sad fact of American life and that fast foods will continue to expand like inflatables. With an affordable supersizing option offered at many fast food restaurants, why would anyone look back? Imagine what would happen if someone were actually of- fered to downsize their meals? Now that’s just crazy talk, right? Maybe not, according to a recent study published in the journal Health Affairs. Researchers were curious to see if restaurant-goers would choose to “downsize” their meal for the same price and by doing so, reduce their overall caloric intake. The results of the study suggest the answer is yes. In a fast food Chinese restaurant in Durham, NC, un- suspecting diners were given a “downsizing” option for a side dish. Initially, the restaurant owners feared that their customers would be offended by the offer but the results sur- prised everyone. Approximately one third of the patrons selected the downsize option, and trimmed 200 calories from their meals in the process. Observers noted that these customers “did not appear to feel deprived—they had an equivalent amount of leftovers as the regular group.” It was a win-win for both parties, as the restaurant maintained profit and the consumers kept their figures.
Previous studies conducted by the same researchers have shown that although consumers would not ask for less food, they would accept it if given the choice. But what makes this downsizing anomaly work? According to Janet Schwartz, lead author of the study, letting consumers downsize portions will allow them to decrease caloric intake without sacrificing what they want.
Many popular dieting strategies fall short because, as ABC news writer Dr. Rachel Adams says, “Substituting a salad for a Big Mac is not an appealing choice.” Calorie
labeling has not been effective in helping consumers cut backn either. After all, are slices of apples equivalent to a pizza when you are craving a deep dish crust bathed in mozzarella? Schwartz adds that Americans don’t stop eating when they are full, but do so when they see their plates are empty, just another reason downsizing may not be as absurd as it sounds. Apart from food substitution problems, extreme and fad diet strategies have other pitfalls. Weighing and measuring foods is not practical, enduring approaches for most. Many diets have short shelf lives; once a weight loss goal is reached, people fall back into their old eating habits. Diets often deprive people by “eliminating certain foods or even whole food groups,” an unrealistic and risky tactic according to Dr. Adams.
Lifestyle changes are more successful when people feel like they have control over their fate. By giving customers the choice to downsize their favorite meal, it may give them the warm rush of self-assuredness that is helpful in changing their dieting patterns without the bitter taste of guilt. A study conducted by researchers at The University of Pennsylvania tested the effects of acute withdrawal from preferred high-fat diets in mice by switching carbohydrate and fat-rich foods to plain house chow. Results of the experiment showed that “acute withdrawal from such a [preferred] diet elevates the stress state and reduces reward, contributing to the drive for dietary relapse.” Downsizing does not resort to such extremes and seeks to accommodate consumers by evading the feeling that they are actually dieting.
Other explanations for the effectiveness of downsizing can be extrapolated. Perhaps consumers who ordered a downsized meal ate it slower in order to make it last longer, contributing to an overall feeling of fullness both physiologically and psychologically. Maybe people just wanted to try the newest thing offered by the restaurant just because it was novel, and reduced calories as an added bonus. If the results of this study can be replicated successfully, then downsizing meals may just gain momentum in becoming the solution to America’s expanding waistline. And now the question remains: would you like to downsize that?