Consumers who feel powerless reach for extra-large portions of food in an effort to increase their social standing in the eyes of others, a new study suggests.

"An ongoing trend in food consumption is consumers' tendency to eat more and more," the researchers wrote in the study to be published in the April 2012 print edition of the Journal of Consumer Research. "The increase in food consumption is particularly prevalent among vulnerable populations, such as lower socioeconomic status consumers."

Researchers from the French business school École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris and Northwestern University in Illinois conducted several experiments to see why people of lower social standings made poor health decisions by selecting larger food portions.

The study authors noted that cultural norms associate some larger items, such as houses, vehicles or flatscreen TVs, with wealth, success and high social status. If consumers feel unhappy with their status, they may take this belief and apply it to food, the researchers suggested.

These consumers may attempt to compensate for their perceived lower status by showing others that they can afford to buy the larger sizes, but instead of a Mcmansion they buy larger portion sizes, according to the researchers. In one of the experiments, the participants perceived that consumers who bought a large coffee at a cafe had a higher status than those who chose medium or small — even when the price of all sizes was the same.

Another experiment showed that consumers who felt powerless chose larger pieces of bagels than other participants who did not feel powerless. Low-power participants also tended to choose larger smoothies when they were at a social event than when they bought the drink alone.

"Because vulnerable consumers are prone to express their status in order to compensate for their undesirable position and respond to daily threats, this research further proposes that the tendency to use the size of food options within an assortment will be particularly strong among those consumers who feel powerless," the authors wrote.

However, the researchers found that those compensating for low status with big food items can be influenced into making healthier decisions when it comes to food. In another experiment, when the "powerless" participants were told that smaller hors d'oeuvres were served at prestigious events, 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 authors wrote.

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This article was reprinted with permission from LiveScience.

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