Consumers focus on food types, not portions, when it comes to perceived healthiness

May 21, 2018 by Kara Sherrer, Vanderbilt University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

It's an age-old question: Is it healthier to focus on the type of food you eat or the portion size?

Whatever the correct answer is, consumers tend to be more influenced by the perceived healthiness of a (nuts over chocolate, for example), than a food's portion size. That's one of the findings in new research by Kelly Haws, professor of marketing at Vanderbilt University's Owen Graduate School of Management.

The study, to be published in the journal Management Science, also finds that this tendency to neglect food quantity in favor of food type can partly be mitigated by encouraging consumers to compare different portion sizes of food side-by-side.

Consumers believe the type of food they are eating has a much greater impact on their ability to achieve health goals than the amount of food they consume. As a result, even consumers who are trying to lose or maintain their current weight choose "healthy" items in larger amounts than the food's calories justify.

"Consumers view a change in food type as having a much greater impact on perceived healthiness or progress towards than a change in food quantity, even when holding objective impact constant in terms of calories," the authors wrote in the study.

Through a series of lab and online studies, Haws and her co-authors (Peggy J. Liu of the University of Pittsburgh; Joseph P. Redden of the University of Minnesota; and Karen Scherr, James R. Bettman, and Gavan J. Fitzsimons of Duke University) investigated the effects of varying food types (such as chocolates vs. almonds vs. crackers) and varying food quantities (such as 1⁄2 serving vs. 1 serving vs. 2 servings) on participants' healthiness perceptions.

In the studies, food type emerged as a "primary dimension," or a factor that was highly relevant and influential to participants' judgments of the food's healthiness. Meanwhile, food quantity acted as a "secondary dimension," holding much less sway over participants' healthiness evaluations unless was explicitly brought to their attention. And even then, food quantity affected judgments less than the primary dimension of food type.

Past research has generally examined food type and quantity separately or treated them as interchangeable routes to healthier consumption. "These findings are innovative because they distinguish between and explicitly compare two common routes to healthier consumption that are perceived to be very different," the authors wrote.

Haws' findings have implications not just for researchers, but for everyday consumers looking to make healthier food choices or manage their weight. Eating a smaller number of calories is key to losing weight, but if individuals consume large quantities of foods that are high in calories but perceived to be healthy (such as nuts), they may actually consume more calories than they would by eating a smaller portion of junk food.

"The tendency to be largely insensitive to food quantities may be problematic if believe that consuming large of calorically-dense 'healthy' foods (e.g., granola, nuts) will have a similar impact on health as consuming smaller portions of such foods," the authors noted.

"These findings suggest that the primacy of type over quantity could potentially have a negative impact on efforts to lose or maintain weight through reduced caloric consumption."

Explore further: Research supports reduction in food product portion sizes

Related Stories

Research supports reduction in food product portion sizes

April 30, 2018
New research, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, highlights the benefits of the food industry changing food product portion sizes in order to make healthier eating more normal.

Learning to make healthy choices can counter the effects of large portions

January 25, 2018
People are often told that eating everything in moderation can help them lose weight, but it is better to choose healthier foods than to try to eat less, according to Penn State researchers.

The bad habits that lead to weight gain

April 12, 2018
(HealthDay)—It's no secret that weight gain results from consuming too many calories. But at its core is an imbalance of healthy and unhealthy habits.

Is there such a thing as eating too many fruits and vegetables?

July 25, 2012
(Medical Xpress) -- It may make you scratch your head, but in fact it is possible to overeat healthy foods, according to Loyola University Health System registered dietitian Brooke Schantz.

Increase in types and brands of same food items contributes to overconsumption

April 30, 2015
People who eat different types and brands of commonly available food items, such as pizza, are more likely to overeat than people who tend to consume the same brand, according to research by the Universities of Liverpool ...

Eat dessert first? It might help you control your diet

September 11, 2012
Consumers watching their diet should pay close attention to the amount of unhealthy foods they eat, but can relax when it comes to healthier options, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Recommended for you

Moderate carbohydrate intake may be best for health

August 17, 2018
Eating carbohydrates in moderation seems to be optimal for health and longevity, suggests new research published in The Lancet Public Health journal.

Like shark attack and the lottery, unconscious bias influences cancer screening

August 17, 2018
What do shark attack, the lottery and ovarian cancer screening having in common? It turns out our judgments about these things are all influenced by unconscious bias.

Phantom odors: One American in 15 smells odors that aren't there, study finds

August 16, 2018
Imagine the foul smell of an ash tray or burning hair. Now imagine if these kinds of smells were present in your life, but without a source. A new study finds that 1 in 15 Americans (or 6.5 percent) over the age of 40 experiences ...

US drug overdose deaths surge amid fentanyl scourge

August 16, 2018
US drug overdose deaths surged to nearly 72,000 last year, as addicts increasingly turn to extremely powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl as the supply of prescription painkillers has tightened.

Parental life span predicts daughters living to 90 without chronic disease or disability

August 15, 2018
Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine report that women whose mothers lived to at least age 90 were more likely to also live to 90, free of serious diseases and disabilities.

Widespread declines in life expectancy across high income countries coincide with rising young adult, midlife mortality

August 15, 2018
The ongoing opioid epidemic in the United States is a key contributor to the most recent declines in life expectancy, suggests a study published by The BMJ today.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.