Fast food

Care to downsize that order? Many want smaller portions

Feb. 8, 2012 at 4:01 PM ET

Care to downsize that cheeseburger order?

What if the server at your favorite fast food joint asked if you wanted to downsize your order, instead of asking you to supersize it?

That’s a strategy that might make some patrons happier – and a lot thinner, a new study suggests.

When people were asked if they wanted to downsize portions of their side dishes at a fast food restaurant, as many as a third opted for the smaller – and thus lower calorie - option, according to the report published in the journal Health Affairs.

The whole notion seems counter to our natural bargain-hunting instincts: less food for the same price. But consumers apparently are ready to tighten their belts, literally.

“The restaurant thought people wouldn’t be willing to do it," said the study’s lead author, Janet Schwartz, a psychologist and an assistant professor of marketing at the Freeman School of Business at Tulane University. “Some people don’t want big supersized portions and they’re willing to pay a premium for it by paying the same amount for less food.”

Other strategies, like displaying the calorie count of every item on the fast food restaurant menu, just haven’t led to weight loss, Schwartz said.

The idea behind downsizing is that people really do understand that no matter what’s put on their plates, they’ll most likely devour every single morsel, Schwartz said. But, if they’re given a chance to get a smaller portion before they stick the first forkful into their mouths, many will go for it.

For the new study, Schwartz and her colleagues asked a fast food Chinese restaurant to offer customers smaller portions of high carb side dishes. In one experiment, people were given a small price incentive -  a 25-cent savings – and in two others, they were simply offered a smaller portion at the same price.

When there was a cash discount, 33 percent of people chose the smaller portions, as compared to 21 percent and 18 percent without the monetary incentive. 

The savings in calories were significant – 200 for those choosing the downsized option.

Leslie Bonci, a nutritionist at the University of Pittsburgh thinks this kind of strategy could help the nation shed some serious pounds.

Certainly the addition of calorie counts didn’t.

“There’s a certain number numbness out there,” said Bonci, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

A big part of the problem is the growth of the portion size, Bonci said. It’s changed our expectations.

“There was a time when the piece of meat on our plate would be 6 ounces,” Bonci explained. “Now, depending on where you go, it can be anywhere from 9 to 12 ounces – and more if you get a steak. A serving of pasta used to be a cup, now it’s 3 at a minimum and often up to 6.

“Meanwhile, vegetables have taken a nose-dive. You used to get five chunks of broccoli on your plate, now it’s just one sad little spear. There’s been a total reversal of what’s being put on our plates and our eyes have gotten used to it.”

Still, Bonci said, calling it “downsizing,” might not be the best strategy if you want it to appeal to hungry diners. “Downsizing has such a negative connotation,” she explained. “People are going to think, ‘I don’t want to lose my food!”

“Instead of asking, ‘would you like to add some fries,’ servers could ask, ‘would you like to right-size it,’” Bonci suggested.

If you’re trying to figure out how to implement the “right-size” strategy at your favorite fast food joint, Bonci suggests simply ordering the smallest size of everything– and not ordering anything bigger than the size of your fist.

“So, if you do a single burger or a junior burger and a small fries then you’re really getting out of there unscathed in terms of your calorie cap,” Bonci said. “And make sure you choose a small drink, too. Or better yet, ask for a cup with ice and fill it with water.”

Bonci underscores the importance of carefully monitoring your liguid calories. “If you order a small burger and a small fries and add to that a tank sized soda you can triple the calories of your meal,” she said.

If you’re going to allow yourself a desert, like ice cream, ask for the kiddie cone, Bonci suggests.

In regular restaurants consider ordering appetizers instead of the full entre, or asking if they offer a half size portion, Bonci suggests.

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