Researchers from the French business school École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris and Illinois’ Northwestern University might have discovered a reason that poorer people tend to eat larger portions of food.

The new study, to be published in the April 2012 print edition of the Journal of Consumer Research, found that since larger items — such as houses, cars or flat-screen TVs — tend to be associated with wealth, success and high social status, financially disadvantaged people may try to compensate for their lower status by buying larger portion sizes of food to show others that they can afford them.

In one of the experiments, participants perceived consumers who bought the biggest size of coffee at a cafe to have a higher status than those who chose smaller sizes, even when the prices for all sizes were the same. Other experiments showed poorer people ordered larger sizes of food and drinks when they were around other people than they did when they were alone.

However, when the “powerless” participants were told that prestigious events tend to serve smaller hors d’oeuvres, they then chose smaller food items that had fewer calories.

“Understanding and monitoring the size-to-status relationship of food options within an assortment is an important tool at the disposal of policymakers to effectively fight against overconsumption,” the study’s authors wrote.

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