Larger portions, packages and tableware lead to higher consumption of food and drink

If you’ve filled your car with petrol lately and reached for a chocolate bar at the cash register, chances are you’ve been swiftly encouraged to snap up more than just one sweet treat. The trend for 2-for-1, up-sizing and super-sizing type offers goes well beyond such petrol station pitches. Cinemas, supermarkets, restaurants and take-away food outlets are now promising greater quantities of food and drink without an accompanying increase in price. While many consumers equate this with value for money and an irresistibly tasty bargain, Cochrane researchers are uncovering the detrimental effects these developments are having on our health and ever-expanding waistlines.

A new review by the Cochrane Public Health Group published earlier this month provides the most conclusive evidence to date that people consistently consume more food or non-alcoholic drinks when offered larger sized portions, packages or tableware than when offered smaller-sized versions. Interestingly, the size of this effect did not appear to vary between men and women, young and old, or people with different Body Mass Index measurements – be they in underweight, average or overweight ranges. Put simply, people of all sizes ate and drank more when presented with more.

One of the most significant findings of this review of 61 high quality studies capturing data from 6,711 participants suggests that eliminating larger-sized portions from our diets completely could reduce energy intake by up to 16 per cent among UK adults, 29 per cent among US adults and 25 per cent among Australian adults. This finding offers food for thought for individuals, retailers and restaurants, and suggests reducing the size, availability and appeal of food and drinks in shops, restaurants and in the home can assist people to reduce their risk of overeating and help stem the rising obesity epidemic.

Not surprisingly, the review findings have proved to be of great interest to public health experts, consumers, policy makers, researchers and media outlets around the globe. The review received much attention in the UK, featuring on the BBC online  and in The GuardianThe Daily MailThe TelegraphThe Times and The Independent. It was also highlighted in international publications from US and Germany’s Der Spiegel to Nepal’s Kathmandu Post.

Here in Australia a number of major media outlets were set to run a story on the findings the day the review was published, but political events conspired against the planned coverage. Australian airwaves, newspapers, websites, twitter feeds and blogs were dominated by news and analysis of the demise of one Prime Minister and the rise of another on the day in question, leaving little room for other news of note. All was not completely lost however, with the print edition of the Adelaide Advertiser and the highly rating Channel Nine evening news finding room to explore the review’s findings later that week.

The Public Health Group’s Melbourne-based members were pleased the review had a moment in the national media spotlight. Managing Editor Jodie Doyle, Methods Adviser Rebecca Armstrong and the editorial team provided great support to the authors throughout the review process. TheJack Brockhoff Foundation is now contributing funding and support to the Group's review dissemination and knowledge translation activities here in Australia, which are set to continue in the coming months. It's hoped that the findings will provide fresh impetus for discussions on how changes can be made to reduce the size, availability and appeal of larger food portions, packages and tableware in both public sector and commercial settings.

The take-away message then is perhaps one to remember the next time you’re offered that third free Freddo, supersized slushie or monumental coke and choc-top deal. Less may indeed be best…

You can access the full review here:  Portion, package or tableware size for changing selection and consumption of food, alcohol and tobacco