Will American diners downsize, given the option?

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From Green Right Now Reports

Americans may be more accustomed to up-sizing, but at least one study has found that diners will opt for smaller portions, given the choice.

Getting Americans to scale back may require a personal invitation.

The Tulane University study, published in Health Affairs this month, wanted to compare two methods of getting people to eat less. Their premise: That the calorie counts listed on menus do little to deter overeating, but that actual smaller portions might.

So researchers arranged for diners at a Chinese fast-food restaurants to be asked whether they’d like to downsize their starchy side dish. They found that as many as a third of the customers agreed to cut back when asked specifically,  “Would you like to save 200 calories or more by taking a smaller portion?”

“Our goal was to test whether the invitation to downsize a meal component would be embraced by consumers and, importantly, whether the approach would be more effective than a purely information-based approach – in this case calorie labeling,” said lead study author Janet Schwartz, assistant professor of marketing at Tulane’s A.B. Freeman School of Business.

A statement on the study explained it this way:

In one scenario, customers were offered a 25-cent discount if they took the downsizing offer. In another, menu calorie labels were prominently displayed in front of consumers as they selected their meals and in another calorie labels were removed. In all, anywhere from 14 percent to 33 percent of customers opted to downsize portions. Surprisingly, the 25-cent discount had little impact on downsizing choices and the calorie postings didn’t persuade much either. In fact, significantly more customers — 21 percent versus 14 percent– accepted the downsizing offer when calorie information was absent.

The researchers found that whether or not customers accepted the downsized portion had no effect on the amount of uneaten food remaining at the end of the meal. That finding suggested that the calorie-savings was effective.

Schwartz says she hopes the study will be instructive for restaurants by illustrating that helping diners exercise portion control doesn’t necessarily alienate them.

“I think the restaurant industry may find this counterintuitive, but it’s an interesting and easy strategy to implement that could help their customers make healthier choices,” Schwartz says.

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