Why you should serve unhealthy snacks in a small bowl

snack bowlIt is often stated that the accumulation of excess body weight is a simple matter of energy intake exceeding energy expenditure. While this notion is certainly correct, it does not account for the myriad of factors that drive one to consume more calories than necessary.

Take for example the size of a bowl from which you eat your snacks.

Could this simple factor play a role in the number of calories you may consume?

Back in 2005, Wansink and Cheney performed a wonderfully simple study and found that when snacks are offered in a large bowl, people take 53% more food (146 extra calories) and eat 56% (142 calories) more than when offered the same amount of food but in a smaller bowl (roughly half the size of large bowl).

In the study, 40 graduate students were invited to attend a Super Bowl party (not sure why I was never involved in such “research” in my department). Right after they entered the party, the participants were led to 1 of 2 snack bars where they were offered snacks to consume during the game.

Both snack bars had the same amount of identical snacks (roasted nuts and pretzel/chip variety mix).

While the one buffet offered the snacks in 2 large bowls (4 L capacity) the other offered the same quantity of snacks in 2 medium bowls (2 L capacity).

Each participant served themselves on 10-inch plates, and had their plates weighed prior to joining the other participants in another room and watching the game.

One hour later, each participant filled out a survey and the amount of food they ingested was measured (difference between how much initially taken and how much was remaining).

A total of 5 of 40 participants did not take any snacks when offered. It is not reported whether these individuals were smuggling carrot sticks in their pockets. Regardless, they were swiftly and forcibly removed from the party. (Okay, that didn’t actually happen. The non-snacking weirdos were allowed to stay at the party and probably make the rest of the participants feel guilty.)

The effect of bowl size on caloric consumption was not influenced by body weight, hours since last meal, age, or education. However, gender did play a role; males were more susceptible to the influence of bowl size.

Take home message?

If you have friends coming over for a party, or you’re making snacks for yourself or your family, try the following: place the healthy snacks in large bowls and the unhealthy ones in small bowls. Theoretically, this would result in a greater consumption of healthy snacks and a limited consumption of unhealthy ones.

To help limit my intake of all things salty, especially chips and prezels, I now only ever buy the “single serve” packs. If I am really craving something awful, it guarantees I have to leave the house and head to the grocery store to score some snacks. No more family size bags of chips – it may be economical, but it certainly ain’t helping my waistline.

Even better, you can do away with the unhealthy snacks altogether.


Wansink, B. (2005). Super Bowls: Serving Bowl Size and Food Consumption JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, 293 (14), 1727-1728 DOI: 10.1001/jama.293.14.1727

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2 Responses to Why you should serve unhealthy snacks in a small bowl

  1. amandachen says:

    What sort of things are unhealthy snacks? Has there been any research?

  2. julie says:

    I do this. I really like moderation, not absolutes. I buy the single serving bag of chips. I take one slice (rasher?) of bacon at work, for breakfast. I keep bread and cheese in freezer, it’s a lot of work to munch on a bit of it, mindless eating is hours out, not worth the effort.

    Unfortunately, at parties, I will return over and over to the chips, and bread and cheese, and salty fatty carbs.