Portion Distortion

While making healthy food choices is essential for good health and weight management, the amount we eat is also important.  And due to increasing portion sizes of packaged foods, fast foods and restaurant meals, alongside bigger bowls, plates and glasses, many of us have lost touch of how much we eat.

New research from The George Institute for Global Health has found that portion sizes for some of Australia’s most commonly consumed ‘discretional’ foods (that’s foods that provide little nutritional value) have risen significantly over the past 20 years.  Comparing data from 1995 to 2012, the researchers found that pizza and cake were the worst offenders, with the kilojoule content of a typical portion increasing by 66%! For cake this translates to almost 1000kj more in an average slice, compared to two decades ago.  Typical serves of processed meats, cereal bars, ice-cream and wine also increased in size, ranging from 17 to 39% bigger.

Previous research from the US has shown similar findings, with fast food restaurants the biggest offenders.

Considering that the latest national health survey has found that the average Australian gets one-third of their energy from discretional foods, this is a concern.  It’s not surprising that our waistlines are expanding!

Portions matter

The problem with big portion sizes is that research has shown that if we are served larger portions we will eat them, without feeling any fuller or reducing our subsequent food intake.

For example when subjects in one study were served different size sandwiches, of which they could eat as much as they liked, females consumed 12% more energy and males consumed 23% more energy when they were given a larger sandwich compared to one that was two-third the size. Despite these differences, ratings of hunger and fullness were not significantly different.  It’s not just single meals either.

Another study found that when subjects were given larger portions of all food and drinks for 11 days, they continued to consume the larger amounts with no signs of cutting back.

Similarly, a study in which a group of normal and overweight adults were given either ‘standard’ or ‘large’ portions of the same foods and drinks, the men served the large portions consumed 17% more energy and the women 10% more energy than those given the regular portions and they sustained this higher food intake over the 4 days of the study.

Plate control

 If the amount we serve dictates what we eat, then serving the right portions in the first place is a key part of managing our weight. And one way to do this is to use smaller plates. 

A recent review of the research, combining the results of 56 studies on the effect of smaller plates on food consumption, found that halving our plate size, on average, leads to a 30% reduction in the amount of food we consume, particularly if we are serving ourselves. On the other hand, if we double our plate size, the amount we serve and eat increases around 40%.

Consistent with these findings, a study of 130 overweight people with type 2 diabetes found that compared to those who only received dietary education, those who were also given a commercially available portion control plate and bowl to use, lost significantly more weight and more than twice as many of them were able to reduce their diabetes medication after 6 months.

Another study in Korean women with type 2 diabetes found that providing a small rice bowl led to a greater reduction in energy intake, weight and blood glucose levels compared to women given a larger bowl, although both groups were given the same guidelines for reducing their food intake.

Take control

So what can you do to avoid supersizing your meals?

At Home:

  • serve meals on smaller plates
  • when serving your meal, portion any leftovers straight into containers and pack away for another meal so you’re not tempted to go back for seconds
  • fill at least half your plate with vegies and salads
  • eat slowly
  • buy single serve size foods rather than larger packs, especially for high energy snack foods
  • always serve a single portion of food into a bowl or on a plate and avoid eating directly from the packet
  • sit at the table to eat, not in front of the television or computer – it’s easy to overeat when you are distracted

Eating Out:

  • order entrée sizes and add a side serving of vegetables or salad
  • share desserts or cake with a friend
  • ask for a doggie bag if the meal is too much to eat at the time
  • choose small serving sizes when buying takeaways
  • resist being ‘upsized’ just because it seems like better value
  • remember that fluids count too – make water or mineral water your drink of choice

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