Are you a frequent member of the clean plate club-regardless of the portions on your plate?

Do you often buy-and eat-the bigger sandwich or "meal deal" because it appears to be a better value?

Are you unsure about what is considered a "sensible" portion?

If you answered "yes" to these questions, you may be subject to portion distortion-or the perception that over-sized portions are the right amount to eat. This trend toward larger portions is redefining our notion of appropriate portion sizes. It seems that our eyes are no longer bigger than our stomachs, because we're eating everything on our plates.

Healthy eating is defined not only by what you eat, but also by how much. A key factor in the growing rates of obesity is the rise in portion sizes. Combined with a lack of physical activity, health experts believe that larger portions are contributing to larger waists and more weight-related health problems. That's because bigger portions mean more calories, and usually more of the nutrients linked to health problems, including fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.

Portions have grown steadily over the past several decades. For instance, today's portions of salty snacks, desserts, soft drinks, fruit drinks, bagels, French fries, hamburgers, cheeseburgers are considerably larger than they were in the 1970s. Dinner plates in restaurants have grown by 25 percent, bakers use bigger tins to bake muffins, and many fast-food restaurants serve soft drinks and fries in larger containers. Even recipes have followed the trend; recipes from the 1970s have been "updated" so they now yield fewer servings-meaning portion sizes are bigger.

Recent studies have examined how people respond to larger portions. Not surprisingly, the results all point to the same conclusion-the more we're served, the more we eat. Here is an overview of some recent research findings:

d dResearchers asked consumers to choose from four sizes of submarine sandwiches. Both men and women ate more calories when served a larger sandwich. Despite eating more, their perceptions of hunger and fullness did not differ, suggesting that people tend to adjust their feelings of fullness to accommodate a greater calorie intake.
dIn a restaurant study, some diners were served an average portion of a baked pasta dish while others were served a 50-percent larger portion of the same pasta dish. Those who were served the larger portion consumed over 500 calories more, on average, and also ate more accompanying side dishes.
d dDifferent sizes of "single serve" bags of potato chips were served to men and women. The people with the larger sized bags ate significantly more. Added to this, those who ate the larger snack portions did not adjust their intake at the next meal to compensate for the extra calories.

Why do portions affect how much we eat? There seems to be a learned tendency to eat all of the food served, or to "clean the plate." This is typically learned during childhood. Studies that examined children's responses to varying portion sizes found that youngsters eat until they feel satisfied. In other words, their intake is not affected by portion sizes. Gradually, children seem to lose this innate ability to listen to internal cues of hunger and satiety and, like adults, begin to respond to increasing portions by eating more.

To better gauge sensible portions, first you must understand the difference between portions and serving sizes. The amount of food you choose to eat is considered a portion. This may be larger or smaller than a standard serving size listed on a Nutrition Facts panel or recommended by the Food Guide Pyramid. These standard serving sizes are not necessarily the amounts you should eat at one time-they are meant to help you plan and judge your portions so your day's food choices will supply enough calories and nutrients without overdoing it.

To find out if your portions are adding up to more servings than you need, compare your real-life portions to Pyramid servings. For example, see how the portions in a typical lunch translate to standard servings:

Pyramid Servings
Deli sandwich; 6 ounces of roasted turkey on a 6-inch hoagie roll with 2 slices of Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, and mayonnaise
4 grain servings
2 meat servings
2 milk servings
1 vegetable serving
2-ounce bag of baked potato chips
2 vegetable servings
16-ounce bottle of juice
2+ fruit servings

Your portions do not need to match standard serving sizes, just be aware that your portions may be equal to more than one Pyramid serving . The number of servings you need to eat from each food group to meet your daily calorie and nutrient requirements depends on your age, gender, and activity level. (For more information, click here:

d Be Portion Sensible. Keeping tabs on your portion budget doesn't mean eating only small portions of food. Use the size-wise strategies described below to manage your portions-and your total calorie intake.
Personalize your portions. As you purchase a meal or fill your plate, consider when you last ate, how hungry you are, and your activity level for the day. Use this knowledge to select reasonable portions that are right for you.
d Change your mindset. Remind yourself that you don't need to eat every morsel on your plate. To eliminate the temptation, steer clear of "meal deals." These may seem a better value, but the perceived "savings" of a mega-meal indulgence may be offset by future costs related to weight-related health problems.
Eurosize your portions. Pick one or two foods at each meal and reduce your typical portion by about 1/3. When you get used to seeing smaller portions, you won't miss the few extra bites.
d Tune in to your body's cues. When faced with large portions, eat slowly and trust your feelings of fullness. Stop when you're satisfied and enjoy the leftovers at another meal. Plan to eat regularly so your hunger doesn't drive you to eat larger portions.
Be portion-selective. Not all large-portioned foods should be avoided. Indeed, larger portions of fruits, vegetables, and broth-based soups help fill you up with fewer calories.

Trim around the edges. If you just can't resist larger portions of certain foods from time to time, trim some calories by cutting back on a sauce, spread, or other calorie-laden accompaniment.

Thumb tip =
1 teaspoont
Full thumb =
1 tablespoon or 1 ouncet
Palm of hand or deck of cards =
3 ounces of meat
4 stacked dice =
1 ounce of cheese
Tennis ball =
small piece of fruit
Closed fist =
1 cup
Inside of slightly cupped hand or racquetball =
1/2 cup
Golf ball =
1/3 cup

Diliberti N, Bordi PL, Conklin MT, Roe LS, Rolls BJ. Increased portion size leads to increased energy intake in a restaurant meal. Obes Res. 2004;12(3):562-8.

International Food Information Council Foundation, Food Marketing Institute, USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Basic Maintenance For Your Body. Washington DC. February, 2003.

Rolls BJ, Roe LS, Kral TV, Meengs JS, Wall DE. Increasing the portion size of a packaged snack increases energy intake in men and women. Appetite. 2004;42(1):63-9.

Rolls BJ, Roe LS, Meengs JS, Wall DE. Increasing the portion size of a sandwich increases energy intake. J Am Diet AssocJADA. 2004;104(3):367-72.

Rolls BJ. The supersizing of America: Portion size and the obesity epidemic. Nutr Today. 2003;38(2):42-53.

USDA Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Dietary Guidelines for Americans. How Much Are You Eating? Putting the Guidelines into Practice. Washington DC. March, 2002.

Young LR, Nestle M. The relation of expanding portion sizes to the US Obesity Epidemic. Am J Pub Health. 2002;92(2):231-4.


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