Is a “Happy Meal” the Key to Weight Loss?

Remember when you were a kid and getting a “Happy Meal” was, well…the happiest of occasions? Remember how you didn’t care that the serving sizes were microscopic simply because you were getting a free toy? (Oh my, I remember when McDonald’s had those tiny Barbie figurines. I was over the moon.) Even I (a child with a voracious appetite), chose to forego a double cheeseburger in exchange for the possibility of receving a tiny Beanie Baby (they sold out way too fast). This so-called “Happy Meal Effect” encourages individuals (both young and old) to choose smaller portions in exchange for non-edible rewards (or even the possibility of non-edible rewards).

The University Southern California recently conducted a series of seven experiments to further test the merits of the “Happy Meal Effect” on both adults and children.1 The results were shockingly consistent, demonstrating that participants were typically willing to forgo larger portions in favor of lesser portions paired with small, nonedible bonuses, such as dollar store earbuds.1 Even the possibility of receiving a reward, such as the chance to win 10,000 frequent flyer miles or a $100 gift card, were enough to make participants choose a 1/2 sandwich over a whole.1Most importantly, the studies demonstrated that participants did not compensate for smaller portions by eating more later in the day.1

This study makes me wonder how I can activate the “Happy Meal Effect” in my own life. Perhaps there is merit to buying myself a small present if I choose smaller portions, or putting aside the money previously allocated to food for a small reward, like a new Kindle download. What do you think? Can the “Happy Meal Effect” be utilized in our own lives to reduce calorie intake?


1. The happy-meal effect: can less food (plus prize) motivate better choices? Idea Fitness Journal. March 2016;13(3):52-52.



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