A qualitative study of psychological, social and behavioral barriers to appropriate food portion size control

Michelle Spence, M Barbara E Livingstone, Lynsey E Hollywood, Eileen R Gibney, Sinéad A O'Brien, L Kirsty Pourshahidi, Moira Dean

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41 Citations (Scopus)
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Background: Given the worldwide prevalence of overweight and obesity, there is a clear need for meaningful practical healthy eating advice - not only in relation to food choice, but also on appropriate food portion sizes. As the majority of portion size research to date has been overwhelmingly quantitative in design, there is a clear need to qualitatively explore consumers’ views in order to fully understand how food portion size decisions are made. Using qualitative methodology this present study aimed to explore consumers’ views about factors influencing their portion size selection and consumption and to identify barriers to appropriate portion size control.

Methods: Ten focus groups with four to nine participants in each were formed with a total of 66 persons (aged 19–64 years) living on the island of Ireland. The semi-structured discussions elicited participants’ perceptions of suggested serving size guidance and explored the influence of personal, social and environmental factors on their food portion size consumption. Audiotapes of the discussions were professionally transcribed verbatim, loaded into NVivo 9, and analysed using an inductive thematic analysis procedure.
Results: The rich descriptive data derived from participants highlight that unhealthy portion size behaviors emanate from various psychological, social and behavioral factors. These bypass reflective and deliberative control, and converge to constitute significant barriers to healthy portion size control. Seven significant barriers to healthy portion size control were apparent: (1) lack of clarity and irrelevance of suggested serving size guidance; (2) guiltless eating; (3) lack of self-control over food cues; (4) distracted eating; (5) social pressures; (6) emotional eating rewards;
and (7) quantification habits ingrained from childhood.

Conclusions: Portion size control strategies should empower consumers to overcome these effects so that the consumption of appropriate food portion sizes becomes automatic and habitual.
Keywords: Food portion size, Barriers, Obesity, Consumers, Qualitative study. © 2013 Spence et al.; licensee BioMed Central Ltd
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-10
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2013

Bibliographical note

This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


  • Food portion size
  • Barriers
  • Obesity
  • Consumers
  • Qualitative study


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