“Guiltless Gluttony”

by Ali Schumacher on October 3, 2012

Image courtesy of photopin.com

This past weekend, as my last batch of pumpkin mini muffins was in the oven, I laughed reminiscing about a joke from one of my favorite comedians.  As Jim Gaffigan so aptly puts it, “How much denial are we in when we’re eating mini muffins?– ‘Oh I’ll just have like 1 or 12. They’re so small they don’t really count’.”

This joke, although simple, may in fact have some scientific backing.  New research suggests that size labeling (i.e. small, medium, large) can have a major impact on what we buy and how much of it we eat.

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research revealed that consumers’ estimates of food size is influenced more by the arbitrary label given to the food than any visual clues or verbal info about the actual size.  Moreover, this discrepancy in food size estimation is shown to be greater when larger items are mislabeled as small than when smaller items are mislabeled as large.

For example: if Bob is given a large cheeseburger mislabeled as “small,” his estimate of the hamburger’s size will be smaller than the true size. He may think it’s a quarter-pounder, when in actuality, he’s consuming a half-pound burger.

Hamburger image taken from freedigitalphotos.net

Furthermore, people’s perceptions of how much they’ve actually consumed is distorted by the label given to the food they’ve eaten– when “larger” food items were mislabeled as “small” people underestimated how much they had eaten compared to those who received accurately labeled items.

For example, let’s say while Bob was eating the larger hamburger mislabeled as “small,” Joe ate the same size hamburger correctly labeled.  After their meal, Bob’s estimation of how much he ate will most likely be less than Joe’s even though the burgers were the same size.

What does this mean?  — Simply put, it means that we rely more on arbitrary labels in deducing how much we eat than we do on our own feelings of fullness.

If you look at portion sizes today compared to those a few decades ago, it’s clear that the amount we consume in a given sitting has grown… uh… a lot.  Today’s “small” was yesterday’s “jumbo.”  According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, one cheeseburger 2 decades ago contained about 333 calories.  Today, it’s a whopping 590 (no pun intended– my apologies to Burger King).

The fact of the matter is that portion sizes have grown, size labeling is inconsistent, and, when it comes down to it, the labels don’t mean much.  We need to pay more attention to how satisfied we feel when eating and less attention to the label.

Some simple steps can help us start to better recognize when we’re feeling full.

  1. Eat slowly (or as slowly as you can).  It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to realize you’re full.
  2. You don’t have to finish everything on your plate!– take your time and assess fullness throughout the meal.  If you’re still hungry, keep eating.

I have always stood behind the saying “everything in moderation.”  Let’s just make sure that we’re not letting labels dictate what “moderate” means.



Aydinoglu, N.Z. & Krishna, A. (2011). Guiltless Gluttony: The Asymmetric Effect of Size Labels on Size Perceptions and Consumption. Journal of Consumer Research. 37(6): p. 1095-1112.