Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Serving Sizes and Portion Control: A Primer

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The exact number varies, but the general consensus is that the average American’s calorie intake has shot up about 20 percent since the 1970s. How did that happen? Did we get taller? Did we start running marathons? Did we suddenly get really, really hungry (for 40 years)?

Nope. Serving sizes increased. And it happened so gradually, we barely even noticed.

Well, some people noticed. And while the embiggening of portions may not be news to foodies, newshounds, and concerned parents, the numbers themselves might be. According to a great piece at Divine Caroline, few decades ago:
  • A slice of pizza clocked in at a mere 250 calories. Today, it comes in at 425.
  • Bagels were half the size they are now.
  • A standard tub of movie popcorn was 360 calories less than it is in 2010.
It doesn’t stop there, either. Soda, donuts, muffins, nearly all packaged foods (especially convenience items), you name it – nowadays, they come in containers significantly larger than our parents were used to.

What does this cost us, in terms of health and straight-up cash? Well, in the long term, out-of-control serving sizes contribute to obesity, metabolic syndrome, and many more exciting health problems associated with the Western diet. We may not sacrifice part of our paychecks for them now, but medication and hospital bills add up years down the line.

In the short term, we’re simply paying more money for bigger food. Super-sizing is only another quarter? Sure, why not? We can get a movie soda AND popcorn for only two dollars more than buying either alone? Let’s do it. Pop Tarts are 20% larger? I mean, I don’t know how I’m gonna cram that into my toaster, but nonetheless: Woo hoo!

So, how do we know how much to eat? How can we tell what reasonable servings look like? And how can we prevent consistent overindulging as time marches on?

Good questions, all. And here are some answers:


There are a plethora of online articles, slideshows, and graphics dealing with standard serving sizes and moderate portions. This Web MD tool is just one fabulous, easy-to-use example. One quick word of caution: While it’s improved, the USDA food pyramid is pretty heavily influenced by industry, and isn’t necessarily a reliable guide. Better to consult nutritionists and science-related websites.

Know your daily caloric needs.
This will give you a good idea of how many calories, and subsequently how much food, you can consume in a day without going overboard. It’s different for men and women, adults and children, active and non-active people, etc., so find a reliable calculator to get specifics.


Measure your food.
Initially, it’s a pain in the butt. But once you know what a tablespoon of oil or a half-cup of oatmeal really looks like, you’ll be more conscious of those quantities in the future. For extra credit, re-measure every few months, to prevent unconscious inflation.

Use visual cues.
If you don’t have measuring cups handy, there are other ways of estimating portions. For example, this guide from Prevention Magazine shows you how to use your hands when calculating amounts. Diabetic Living has a slideshow comparing serving sizes to everyday objects, like CDs, computer mice (mouses?), and shotglasses.

Read labels.
When it comes to packaged edibles, the amount of food in a single serving is always printed on the ingredient label. Just remember to pay attention to the number of servings within a container. For example, a pint of Ben & Jerry’s isn’t one serving. It’s four.


Portion your plate.
Your largest serving over every meal should consist of fruits and/or vegetables. Your smallest should be meat or cheese-soaked anything. Fit starch in where you can, don’t forget to include nuts and legumes, and use sweets and bad fats sparingly.

Use smaller plates.
Not only does this automatically control your portions, but it makes food look bigger. Place a medium-sized baked potato on a 13-inch buffet plate, and it’s dwarfed by the negative space surrounding it. Move the same spud to a six-inch appetizer plate, and it’s suddenly a full-on feast.

Don’t eat food from its container.
Mindless eating is the enemy of portion control. Give yourself a few potato chips, and put the rest of the bag away.

Cook at home.
Restaurants and fast food joints are notorious for their huge portion sizes, frequently packing a full day’s worth of calories into a single sit-down meal. Prepping your own repast in your own kitchen allows you to monitor exactly how much you eat, and store what’s leftover.

Beware of seconds and thirds.
Let your meal sit for a few minutes before going back for another helping. You may be full and not even know it. Related to this, don’t keep serving vessels on the table. Out of sight, out of mind, you know?

When it comes to recipes, use your judgment.
Cook’s Illustrated and Everyday Food are two of my favorite recipe sources, and I find both tend to portion meals into large servings. If you feel a favorite dish makes enough for six people instead of two, go ahead and plate it as such.


This all doesn’t mean we shouldn’t treat ourselves. Oh, heck no. As food lovers and Americans, it’s our prerogative to occasionally eat burgers the size of bowling balls. Sporadically, I’ll polish off a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese without assistance, thinking, or blinking. And in those instances, it’s usually pretty merited. But my point is: overindulging shouldn’t be an everyday kind of thing. At least, not if we want to make it to our seventies.

And that’s that. Readers, what do you think? Are the points made here any good? Do you have any solid strategies for combating super-sized portions? The comment section, she is open.


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