Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Portion Distortion

Source: GreenWise, August 2007

As Serving Sizes Grow, So Do Waistlines – And Our Perceptions Of What A “Normal” Serving Really Is

What’s size got to do with weight gain? A whole lot, figured Vyvyan Lynn, a mother of two from Kite, Georgia, who put on 70 pounds while pregnant.

“It’s simple: If you don’t have a health problem that keeps you from losing weight, then it’s calories in versus calories out through activity,” she says. “I just decided to keep up with what was going in my mouth. I didn’t deny myself what I wanted; I just ate less of it.”

Lynn reduced serving portions, taking in between 1,200 and 1,500 calories a day, and dropped from 225 pounds to 112 pounds within a year. Eight years later, the 48-year-old has kept her weight about 125 pounds, in part by monitoring portion sizes. If she eats fast food, for example, she orders a junior burger without fries. “I hate that too-full feeling,” she says.

Supersized Portions And People

If only we all heeded our hunger as well as Lynn. Instead, Americans are swelling right along with their meal size. The typical restaurant chocolate chip cookie is about 7 times larger than the serving size defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, according to the American Journal Of Public Health (February 2002). Today’s “large” order of French fries at McDonald’s was the “supersized” portion in 1998. A typical plate of pasta can yield six servings, a steak three servings, and a hamburger, two. You’ll find three to four servings in the typical muffin, and today’s bagel is about three times what it used to be.

Americans are expanding at the same disturbing pace. Some 60 million–one-third of all adults–are obese (defined as more than 20 percent above their desirable weight), according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The percentage of overweight young people also has more than tripled since 1980. Among children and teens ages 6-19 years, 16 percent are considered overweight.

Experts warn that being oversized may slash our life expectancy and harm our health in the meantime due to diabetes, heart disease, and other complications of excess weight. “The 20-year-old person with a Body Mass Index of 40 (a measure of the ration of weight to height, in this case 265 pounds at 5’8″), will live 12 to 14 years less than his counterparts who are lean,” says Phillip R. Schauer, M.D., director of the Cleveland Clinic Bariatric and Metabolic Institute. (Note that the CDC defines obesity as a BMI at or above 30.)

Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, blames supersized foods for supersized people. “Larger portions encourage people to eat more calories,” she says. “It’s easier to underestimate calories when you eat larger portions. Everyone underreports calories. Our kids, who’ve grown up on the new sizes, think huge is normal.” Her suggestion? “If you can, listen to your body and stop eating when full. If you can’t do that, then never eat anything in a portion bigger than your fist.”

Reality Check

The more food that’s put in front of you, the more you eat. Moviegoers devour an average of 45 percent more popcorn from a large bag than from a medium one, says researcher Brian Wansink of Ithaca’s Cornell University.

And those extra calories turn into pounds quickly. “Bigger portions may have hundreds of extra calories a day.