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Weight Control Nemesis: Portion Sizes Creep

Aug 17, 2007
First it was in the fast food industry. You couldn't buy anything without your friendly server offering to get you a bigger version of it. The good thing was that you also had to pay more for it. Now it seems to be everywhere. Woe betide the eatery, plain or fancy, that hasn't adjusted the amount of food they deliver as a "portion" upward.

Coming in the September issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, will be an article about a study from Rutgers that compares what 177 young adults perceived as normal portions of breakfast, lunch, and dinner items with what a similar group allotted for similar items 20 years ago. The young people were invited to have a free meal at which they were to choose typical portions of eight food and beverage items at breakfast or six items at lunch or dinner. It turned out that the perceptions of typical portion size were drastically increased for items that were served from and consumed from a cup or a bowl. As an example, study authors Jaime Schwartz, M.S., R.D. and Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, Ph.D., R.D., specifically mentioned that the subjects' ideas of typical portions of orange juice were 40 plus percent larger than 20 years ago. They also mentioned that this amount of juice would provide 50 additional calories and, if one drank that amount every day, it would add up to enough calories to add on five pounds over the course of a year. In all, more than half of the portions selected for breakfast were at least 25 percent higher than chosen by the young people of twenty years ago. For lunch and dinner items, about 70 percent of the portion sizes chosen by today's young adults were at least 25 percent higher than those of twenty years ago.

The investigators also compared the portion sizes considered typical by their group of subjects with the serving size listed on Nutrition Facts panels for those foods and found those labels also were underestimates of what was actually considered a normal serving size by their subjects. So there seems to be an agreement here, between increasing portion sizes and increasing girth for the population. The whole situation is undoubtedly more complicated than can be explained by this one factor, but it could well be a major contributor to the weight control difficulties of many people.

If there was any good news in this study, it was that the amount of salad dressing used by the young adults in the current study was actually less than from two decades ago. And, yes, they did eat salad. Perhaps the message from the dieticians that one should not ruin the positive nutritional effects of raw vegetables by coating them in oil and sugar is being heard. That opens up the possibility that further educational efforts might also be effective.

Given that many people, perhaps including people near and dear to us, or even our own selves, now think that what constitutes a normal portion is larger than it used to be, how can those of us who would like to control our weights of even lose weight, cope? Here are just a couple of ideas.

The first thing in weight control is to learn to sense our body's signals when it is no longer hungry and respond to them immediately. That requires eating slowly, with full attention on the food at hand, so that you can give our body time to send us satiety signals and pay attention to the signals it is sending. If you really, really pay attention to what you are eating, you will really, really enjoy it more. You also learn what really tastes good to you and won't want to waste calories or time or taste sensations on junk that just doesn't measure up. This is also the best strategy for dinner parties or holiday feasts or any occasion where you're eating food someone else has prepared and they might be insulted if you don't seem to be eating with pleasure.

If you are preparing your own meals, then you can measure everything and put it onto smaller plates or into smaller bowls than usual so it fills the space. Full plate, full stomach, regardless of the size of the plate, right? It actually does help. Also, by measuring things, you get a good idea of what your appropriate serving size looks like so you can judge when you hit the buffet line. Be sure to use a small plate there.

Frequent small meals eliminate the psychological need to stoke up. If you have eaten only three hours ago and will eat again in three hours, then you only need true normal portions to keep hunger at bay. This pattern also keeps the metabolism up, making weight loss easier.

If you're eating out, try ordering a full meal, then take half of it home for lunch the next day. The amounts they give you at restaurants these days are so huge, you can easily get two meals out of one and save some dollars, too.
About the Author
Di Roberts, biomedical researcher and veteran of weight loss campaigns, runs a weight loss website that covers the many facets of weight management. You can enjoy reading articles, tips, news, and often irreverent commentary about weight loss on her site at: http://www.quickweightlossupdates.com/
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