Healthy Eating

A New Way to Eat Less


Betcha can’t eat just one. Remember that Lay’s potato chip ad slogan from the ’60s?

Even if you don’t, research over the last five decades proves that it was absolutely accurate. Once you rip open the bag or pop the top of that can of potato chips, you probably can’t stop at one, let alone two, three, four, 10 … oops, did I just eat all that?

But a new study from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab — whose researchers came up with the idea that serving food on smaller plates and bowls helps you eat less — has found that people who find one chip dyed red, which marked either one or two servings, eat about half of what others with no “edible stop signs” consume.

Why We Need Stop Signs

“People generally eat what is put in front of them,” explains Brian Wansink, who holds a doctorate in marketing, is the director of the lab and wrote the best-sellingMindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think::__IHACKLOG_REMOTE_IMAGE_AUTODOWN_BLOCK__::1. Unless, that is, they see something — a visual cue — that tells them to stop. Like a red potato chip.

Wansink says that he and his colleagues settled on painting chips after discarding other ideas, like putting a little paper sleeve between the chips that would tell people how many calories they’d just eaten. “We were afraid people would think, ‘Is this edible?’ and try eating the paper,” he said — joking, I think.

Some snack food manufacturers already have warmed to the idea of calorie-controlled packaging, producing 100-calorie snack packs of everything from cookies to chips. Trader Joe’s even sells almonds in individual packages containing exactly 22 nuts, the recommended serving.

Wansink thinks it’s a good idea. After all, he experimented with it back in the ’90s, then told food producers, “Hey, when you shrink the size of a portion down to 125 calories, people ate a whole lot less and were willing to pay a whole lot more.” In fact, he found that people were willing to shell out about 20 percent more for pre-portioned packaging. “It was a win-win,” says Wansink.

He got some pushback from manufacturers who thought they made more money when people ate more. But Wansink, who’s made a career of studying what makes people eat, told them what really happens: “You have people who eat your chips or cookies, then say, ‘That tasted really good, but I ate too much. I’m not going to do that again for a long time.’ “

Taking Portion Control out of Our (Greedy) Hands

Today, he says, food producers are more likely to see the logic. In fact, several major ones are considering inserting such obvious “stop signs” into product packages.

As for consumers, about 70 percent of us respond to visual cues to stop eating. The other 30 percent “eat about the same amount, maybe even more,” says Wansink.

But he’s still a big proponent of calorie-controlled packaging. “The average snack is about 180 calories,” he points out. “If you eat one of those packs, you’re eating 80 fewer calories than you normally would. Even if you eat two, you’re only eating a little more, and it’s a whole lot less than if you picked up a candy bar, which has 260 to 280 calories.”

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