Larger Packages Mean Heavier Snacking for Students
> 7/31/2006 1:19:43 PM

In a telling study on the psychology of consumption, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania confirmed an unfortunate side-effect of our quick-fix society: larger portions, regardless of nutritional value or the number of servings contained therein, result in more food consumed. A larger bag of potato chips, labeled as two separate servings, will more likely serve as one large portion. Lead researcher Andrew Geier calls the phenomenon "unit bias," or belief that a single unit of food, be it a salad, a candy bar or a pasta plate, is the right amount to eat. He illustrates his point in parallel:

"Whatever size a banana is, that's what you eat, a small banana or a big banana," says Andrew Geier of the University of Pennsylvania. And "whatever's served on your plate, it just seems locked in our heads: that's a meal."

Some companies advertise smaller portions for dieters, but such eating habits most often start very young. This study will hopefully shed more light on the debate over junk foods in schools, an issue which has clearly not received enough attention in either the mainstream media or political discourse. Reducing portion sizes is recommended, but it may not be enough. Many young people are so thoroughly conditioned toward consuming large portions of unhealthy foods that offering alternatives is only the first in a long series of steps required to reinforce the message that these foods are not fit for frequent consumption, especially in such large quantities. In one of  the study's most illuminating experiments, researchers alternated soda cup sizes in a college cafeteria. They used ten and sixteen ounce cups, theorizing that students would drink more from the larger cups; in fact, many of the kids actually drank more with the smaller cups, simply carrying two of them on their tray with lunch.

Funding is obviously crucial to school quality, and candy and soft drink companies offer large sums to establish a near-universal presence in high schools and colleges across the country. But administrators may need to risk approving initially unpopular measures for the well-being of their students, not only offering fruits instead of cookies or chips but eliminating the offending foods altogether. If we continue to highlight the true nutritional deficiencies of such items, kids will be forced to consider their snacking options more carefully.

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