Fast-food patrons in study agreed to downsize meals

Most patrons of fast-food shops are regularly asked if they’d like to “value size” or increase the portions of their meal for a few cents more.

Most patrons of fast-food shops are regularly asked if they’d like to “value size” or increase the portions of their meal for a few cents more.

Experts say supersized meals and a “clean plate” culture largely contribute to a national obesity rate among adults greater than 33 per cent.

But for a few weeks at a time in 2010, visitors to the Panda Express franchise at Duke University in Durham, N.C., were offered the option of less — and a surprising number of people took it.

The experiment, described in the January issue of the journal Health Affairs, “tells us that fast-food customers are receptive to interventions. They recognize that they overeat and wish that they didn’t,’’ said Janet Schwartz, an assistant professor of marketing at Tulane University and lead author of the study.

Schwartz and her colleagues had noted from other research that simply putting nutrition or calorie labels on restaurant menus doesn’t seem to make much difference in how much customers order or eat.

“So we wondered whether inviting customers to take a smaller portion of a starchy side dish would activate self-control,’’ Schwartz said. About a third to a fifth of the customers agreed to downsize, under several different conditions.”

Three different tests were run at the restaurant, located at Duke’s student centre and near the medical centre, at different times during the year, starting near the end of the lunchtime crunch.

Customers in line were first asked which of four side dishes they wanted: steamed rice, fried rice, chow mein (noodles) or mixed vegetables (only about four per cent ever order those). Then, before moving on to pick one or more of 20 stir-fried entrees, the server asked patrons who’d picked a starchy side if they’d would like to save 200 calories by getting a half portion — one scoop rather than two, about five ounces less than standard.

Thirty-three percent said yes. That share stayed the same even when servers offered customers a 25-cent discount for the smaller portion.

In the next phase, researchers asked the restaurant to make the same offer without, and then with, calorie labels posted for each menu item. That time, 21 per cent took the offer before the labels were put up, but just 14 per cent after the calories were posted.

And customer receipts showed that those taking smaller sides didn’t make up for those portions by ordering more or heavier entrees.

“Our economists were surprised so many people were willing to take less, and wondered if these were people who take less food to begin with and throw away a lot,’’ Schwartz said.

So in a third test, the same downsizing offer was made and 18 per cent accepted. But this time, customers were approached after their meal and asked to do a “satisfaction survey” that included a check of their leftovers, including weighing them.

It turned out that the downsizers and those who took full servings all left about the same amount of food on their plates — but the surveys showed that those who ordered the half-sides did so to deliberately cut calories and didn’t eat more later in the day to “make up.”

The researchers concede that the late lunch crowd at Duke may not be typical, but note Duke undergrads were only in session during the second test phase.

Calorie labels, already mandated in many cities, will soon go national for chains under federal law, and many restaurants have started offering small plates and half portions, Schwartz noted. “But of lot of them also match those special offers with promotions to eat dessert.”

The researchers say offering less at the counter simply makes people stop and think what they’re about to eat, rather than mindlessly chowing down. “It’s just one more strategy,’’ Schwartz said. “Some people may need someone to give them a prompt in person to eat less.”

Lee Bowman is a health and science writer for Scripps Howard News Service. Reach Bowman at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Asymptomatic testing will now be available for "priority groups" who are most likely to spread the COVID-19 virus to vulnerable or at-risk populations. File photo by THE CANADIAN PRESS
Marcus Golczyk, with Taco Monster, hands food to a customer during Food Truck Drive and Dash in the Westerner Park parking lot in Red Deer Friday afternoon. The drive-thru event will run every Thursday from 4-7 p.m. and Friday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. through June. Photo by SEAN MCINTOSH/Advocate staff
Food Truck Fridays, Food Truck Drive and Dash return in Red Deer

Red Deerians are able to take in a drive-thru food truck experience… Continue reading

Don and Gloria Moore, of Red Deer, are set to celebrate their 70th anniversary later this month. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer couple to celebrate 70th anniversary

Red Deer couple Don and Gloria Moore are set to celebrate their… Continue reading

Chris Scott, owner of The Whistle Stop Cafe, was put in handcuffs after an anti-restriction protest Saturday in the parking lot of the business. (Screenshot via The Whistle Stop Facebook page)
UPDATE: Central Alberta cafe owner arrested after anti-restriction protest

The owner of a central Alberta cafe, which was the site of… Continue reading

Alberta has 1,910 active cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. Red Deer is reporting five active cases, with 108 recovered. (File photo)
Red Deer now has 911 active COVID-19 cases

Central zone has 2,917 active cases

FILE - A firefighter wears a mask as he drives his truck. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward, File
VIDEO: Flames rip through Edmonton-area seniors complex, but no fatalities

ST. ALBERT, Alta. — Fire has destroyed part of a retirement complex… Continue reading

Quebec Premier Francois Legault chairs a premiers virtual news conference as premiers John Horgan, B.C., Jason Kenney, Alberta, and Scott Moe, Saskatchewan, are seen onscreen, Thursday, March 4, 2021 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Several provinces bring in new restrictions as high COVID-19 case numbers persist

Several provinces are gearing up to tighten public health measures once again… Continue reading

Members of the RCAF take part in a Royal Canadian Air Force change of command ceremony in Ottawa on Friday, May 4, 2018. The Royal Canadian Air Force is hoping Canada will open its doors to military pilots from other countries as it seeks to address a longstanding shortage of experienced aviators. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle
RCAF turns to foreign pilots to help with shortage as commercial aviators stay away

OTTAWA — The Royal Canadian Air Force is hoping Canada will open… Continue reading

An arrivals and departures information screen is seen at the Halifax Stanfield International Airport in Halifax on Thursday, Jan. 4, 2018. The chief executive of Atlantic Canada's largest airport is hoping for COVID-19 testing for arriving passengers "sooner rather than later," as an added measure to combat the province's third wave of the virus. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
Halifax airport CEO hopes for more on-site COVID testing ‘sooner rather than later’

HALIFAX — The chief executive of Atlantic Canada’s largest airport is hoping… Continue reading

Shoppers wear mask as they shop at a nursery & garden shop on Mother's Day weekend during COVID-19 pandemic in Wilmette, Ill., Saturday, May 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
Tearful reunions mark second Mother’s Day under pandemic

Last Mother’s Day, they celebrated with bacon and eggs over FaceTime. This… Continue reading

Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet, standing, watches the game during the second period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, April 14, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. The Wild won 5-2. (AP Photo/Craig Lassig)
Tocchet won’t return as coach of Coyotes after 4 seasons

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes and coach Rick Tocchet have mutually… Continue reading

Columbus Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella shouts at an official after a fight between Columbus Blue Jackets' s Gavin Bayreuther and Florida Panthers' Sam Bennett during the second period of an NHL hockey game, Monday, April 19, 2021, in Sunrise, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Tortorella out after 6 years as Columbus Blue Jackets coach

COLUMBUS, Ohio — John Tortorella is out as coach of the Columbus… Continue reading

A caribou grazes on Baffin Island in a 2008 file photo. A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada's vanishing caribou herds is a step closer after a scientific review panel's approval of a plan to permanently pen some animals and breed them to repopulate other herds. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Kike Calvo via AP Images
Parks Canada captive caribou breeding proposal gets OK from scientific review panel

JASPER, Alta. — A last-ditch attempt to save some of Canada’s vanishing… Continue reading

The smouldering remains of houses in Slave Lake, Alta., are seen in a May 16, 2011, file photo. The wildfire that is devastating large swaths of the northern Alberta city of Fort McMurray comes just five years after another blaze destroyed 400 buildings and left 2,000 people homeless in Slave Lake, Alberta. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ian Jackson
Ten years later: Five things to know about the Slave Lake wildfire

A wildfire burned about one-third of Slave Lake in northern Alberta in… Continue reading

Most Read