Supersize Your Status

Americans tend to have a bigger-is-better attitude about nearly everything. (What stay-at-home mom needs a Humvee? And don’t even get me started on the McMansions taking over suburbia.) Anyone who has seen the documentary “Supersize Me” (or eaten in a restaurant in the last decade) knows that the bigger-is-better attitude is taking over the food industry and, arguably, causing the obesity epidemic that is plaguing this country. New research identifies the cause: people are buying giant servings of food because it makes them feel more powerful.

Currently, 32% of Americans are obese. By 2015, that percentage is expected to climb to 41%. One reason: portion size. Serving sizes in America have increased dramatically in the last 20 years: 52% for soft drinks, 27% for Mexican food, and 23% for hamburgers. We aren’t hungrier than we were a generation ago and it isn’t all due to bargain-hunting, though those factors could play a part. Researchers at Northwestern University recently reported in the Journal of Consumer Research that people choose larger portion sizes because it makes them feel important.

The authors conducted several experiments that evaluated selection of portion size of a variety of drinks and snacks. Under controlled lab experiments and field experiments that manipulated container size, hunger, and even beliefs about obesity, the authors concluded that consumers recognize a size-to-status relationship when making food choices. Almost invariably, the study participants viewed others as having a higher status when observing them choose the largest item in a set of choices, and people who felt less powerful were more likely to choose larger items than people who already felt powerful. Price was not a factor in participants’ decisions, but knowing that other people were watching their choice did enhance the need to choose a larger item.

Portion size offers cues, not only to status, but to satiety, food appeal, and food choice. Visual presentation of food alters palatability and desire for food, and these cues may be stronger among overweight individuals, thus perpetuating the obesity problem.

An interesting dichotomy exists, however, in our culture: we value size as an indicator of status, but we also value waif-like fashion models. Food disorders are rampant on both ends of the spectrum. The obesity epidemic, in particular, crosses all ethnic, income, and educational levels. And many factors contribute to the unhealthy eating habits of Americans. But, marketers know that we love a value meal. And, if supersizing makes us feel better about ourselves, it’s a win-win for the food industry. Still a lose-lose for consumers, though.


Burger KS, Cornier MA, Ingebrigtsen J, & Johnson SL (2011). Assessing food appeal and desire to eat: the effects of portion size & energy density. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 8 PMID: 21943082

Dubois, D., Rucker, D., & Galinsky, A. (2012). Super Size Me: Product Size as a Signal of Status Journal of Consumer Research, 38 (6), 1047-1062 DOI: 10.1086/661890

van Kleef E, Shimizu M, & Wansink B (2012). Serving bowl selection biases the amount of food served. Journal of nutrition education and behavior, 44 (1), 66-70 PMID: 21982579

Image via Maree Stachel-Williamson / Shutterstock.

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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