“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.


Kurt October 3, 2012 at 3:02 pm

Ali – nice blog. Interesting trivia – do you know when the first “supersized” fast food appeared. It was 1993, and it wasn’t called supersizing. McDonald’s ran a promotion with the movie “Jurrasic Park” and you were given the option to “Dinosize” your fries and drink – which got them into a T-rex themed giant fries carton. This caught on, and after the JP promotion went away, McD’s just kept the idea but called it supersizing. It caught on with all the other fast food chains as well. And, going along with your blog, now supersized fries at McDonald’s aren’tcalled “supersized” any more. They’re just called “large”.

Ali Schumacher October 3, 2012 at 3:17 pm

Kurt- Awesome piece of trivia. I had no idea!

Kurt October 4, 2012 at 8:37 am

As a 14yo, the thought of a giant T-rex sized box of McD’s fries was revolutionary. Now its just kind of sad.

Andrea October 4, 2012 at 3:10 pm

Hmm, interesting. I recall selling supersized fries and drinks to customers when I worked at McDonald’s in college, which made it the summers of 1988-1990. I very distinctly remember one customer who came through the drive through every day and ordered just a supersized Diet Coke. The supersized fries order seemed enormous back then!

Lindsay October 3, 2012 at 5:36 pm

Ah, the power of packaging. I used to purchase “100 calorie packs” thinking it would help me with portion control. Well, I usually ended up eating 5 of the 100 calorie packs at once, completely defeating the purpose of buying 100 calorie packs. Additionally, buying these individually packaged products also contributed to more material waste.

So not very helpful for me or the environment…

Ali Schumacher October 3, 2012 at 7:45 pm

I always look at those 100 calorie packs in the store, then say to myself “who am kidding?” and reach for the regular old bag of cookies :) I think it’s more important (and you’re right, probably more environmentally friendly) to just listen to our bodies– they know when we’re hungry and when we’re full better than a label does.

Ali Schumacher October 3, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Thanks for the comment Lindsay!

Margaret October 3, 2012 at 6:08 pm

Good Article! I am a little surprised by the hook though. You started talking about mini muffins and went on to say things about how portion sizes have gotten larger. As well as how food is labeled changes our perception of how full we are. This did not make your article any less accurate, just got my curiosity going. As Lindsey pointed out sometimes when you have smaller portions you go ahead and eat more servings. More and more people are carefully reading labels to count calories, Does this really help?

Thanks for the post,

Ali Schumacher October 3, 2012 at 7:40 pm

I’m not sure about calorie counting specifically, but the article does go on to say that if people are interested in and pay attention to their nutrition, they are less likely to be fooled by the label. I don’t think we need to be as nit-picky as to count calories, but a general awareness of portion size and healthful eating “hygiene,” so to speak, can go a long way.
Thanks for the comments!

Elizabeth Fryer October 3, 2012 at 10:02 pm

In the 70’s bottles of Coke were 16 oz., and they seemed HUGE to me—of course, I was a kid, so things seemed big. We just traveled and my husband got a 44-oz soda at a gas stop! Now, 44 oz. is HUGE.

Ali, lists are generally 3 to 7 (up to 9) items. Your list of two should probably just be in-text points.

I look forward to the next article.

Ali Schumacher October 3, 2012 at 10:13 pm

One time my friend and I “upgraded” our drink size… it was so big it didn’t even come close to fitting in a cup holder. Insane.
Thanks for the pointer on lists– I think I had intended to include a couple more points but they ended up not seeming so relevant.
Thanks for the comment!

Clark Pottowatami October 4, 2012 at 9:01 pm

So the label affects me and (per another study) the container size affects me. Who is doing the study on how a giant bucket of popcorn, half filled, labeled “small” affects me? My guess – total loss of appetite, potentially nausea, due to confusion.

Mark October 4, 2012 at 9:21 pm
PF October 6, 2012 at 11:03 am

Love it! Love the pics (but REALLY wish the links went back to the original image source), love the in-body link to the article partnered with the cite in the end note. ADORE the Jim Gaffigan reference!!! I can just hear his voice saying that. It would have been awesome if you embedded the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-o-u4IwXkbE&t=0m52s Notice that I linked to the exact moment where he says what you mention. There are many ways to do that, but here is a tool to make it easy. http://youtubetime.com/

For this line: “It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to realize you’re full.” I’d love to see something to back that up. Perhaps your next post? :)

Bob October 6, 2012 at 11:15 am

Why is it always Bob who is the fat one? What about Bob?

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: