Mindful eating makes smaller portions more satisfying

Have you ever been to an exclusive restaurant that serves tiny portions and found that, in spite of the paltry servings, you felt satisfied afterwards and the food seemed unusually tasty? If so, you might have engaged in what psychologists call “savouring” behaviours. Charles Areni and Iain Black have studied savouring under laboratory conditions, and they’ve found that when we’re given smaller portions than normal, we eat differently – more slowly, more mindfully, and we feel more satiated as a result.

The researchers recruited dozens of undergrads for a supposed chocolate-tasting study. Half the participants were shown a tray of six delicious chocolates, to create the expectation that they would be tasting all six. In fact, after they’d tasted the first two, they were told that was the end of the experiment. The other half of the students were shown the tray of six chocolates, but told in advance that they would be tasting just two of them.

The students who knew they were only going to get to taste two chocolates ate more slowly than the students who thought they were going to taste all six, they also paid more attention to the flavour and texture of the chocolates, and they felt more satiated afterwards. They also enjoyed the chocolates just as much.

It’s not just that the students who thought they were going to taste all six were in more of a rush. A follow-up study put procedures in place to control for this possibility: all students, whether expecting two or six chocolates, were told the experimenter would be coming in and out of the lab for the next few minutes, regardless of where they were at with their eating, and there were also some easy questionnaires to fill out. In other words, the time commitment of the study (30 minutes) would be the same regardless of how quickly they ate.

A final experiment was similar but this time the participants were filmed to count their number of chews. Also there was an extra condition: some students were only shown two chocolates in the first place (rather than seeing six and being told they’d only get to taste two). Students who knew they were only going to be tasting two chocolates ate more slowly and took more chews (11.5 more on average), compared with students who thought they were going to get to taste six chocolates.

“Consumers compensate for small portions by attending more to the sensory properties of the food, altering their eating behaviour, and slowing their rate of eating,” the researchers said, “which has the effect of increasing satiation, hence lessening their desire for more afterwards.”

Dietary restraint is usually seen as a battle between our current and future selves – the former wants to eat until full, the latter wants to avoid becoming overweight. However, Areni and Black said food savouring is a case of our current and former selves working in cooperation – by eating slowly, paying attention to tastes and textures, our current selves get just as much satisfaction from smaller portions, and our future selves are left sated and with a healthier figure. They added that it would be interesting for future research to see whether receiving larger portions than expected (just think of those “all you can eat buffets”) has the reverse effect, encouraging faster, mindless eating.

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Areni, C., & Black, I. (2015). Consumers’ Responses to Small Portions: Signaling Increases Savoring and Satiation Psychology & Marketing, 32 (5), 532-543 DOI: 10.1002/mar.20798

further reading
The ‘power of one’ – why larger portions cause us to eat more
A psychological problem with snacking in front of the telly

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest