8 Ways to Avoid “Portion Distortion” in a Supersized World

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Have you ever scarfed down a bag of movie popcorn or eaten your whole “personal”-sized pizza without realizing it? What about cleaning your plate to avoid wasting your pricey entrée? After all, isn’t a single plate, bag, box, or bowl an individual serving? Not anymore.

While that may have once been true, average portion sizes have ballooned in the last two decades. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), many foods packaged as a single portion (the amount of food in front of you) contain multiple servings (actual measurements of food like one slice of bread or a half cup of fruit). As a result, many of us have a faulty perception of how much we should eat, a phenomenon called “portion distortion.”

Portion Distortion in Packaged Form

A regular soda drinker probably wouldn’t flinch at the prospect of guzzling a 20-ounce bottle. But that one bottle actually contains 2.5 servings. And while a 3-ounce bag of Doritos might seem like a reasonable snack, there are three 140-calorie servings inside. The Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA’s) new guidelines for nutrition labels may soon make this distinction clearer on packaging. Food manufacturers will no longer be allowed to rely on outdated data to determine serving sizes, and they’ll have to increase the type size for “calories,” “servings per container,” and “serving size” on every product.

Until these changes take effect (manufacturers have until July 26, 2018 to comply with the final requirements), you may still have trouble decoding nutrition labels. Even packaged “healthy” foods can be deceiving. For example, seemingly wholesome, whole-grain Grape-Nuts cereal contains a sensible 210 calories per serving. But a serving is just half a cup. If you fill your bowl and add milk, you may be eating more calories than you realize. And if you’re trying to lose weight or just get a better handle on your diet, unknowingly eating over-sized portions could sabotage your efforts.

Supersize Me

Portion distortion happens both in restaurants and at home. That’s because everything from breakfast staples in your pantry to main courses at your favorite lunch spots have inflated drastically. Twenty years ago, the average bagel measured 3 inches in diameter and contained about 140 calories. Today’s bagels are twice the size and closer to 350 calories.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that over the past 20 years, snacks like pretzels and crackers have expanded by 60 percent, sodas by 52 percent, and hamburgers by 23 percent. Perhaps not surprisingly, adult obesity rates during this time period more than doubled. And according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health, you’re likely to encounter cooked pasta, muffins, and steak that exceed the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s standard sizes by 480 percent, 333 percent, and 224 percent, respectively.

Referencing a 2015 analysis of 60 studies, Lisa Young, nutritionist and author of The Portion Teller Plan says, “People consumed more food and drink when given bigger portions, plates, or silverware. And they ate more food regardless of if they were thin or overweight, male or female, hungry or not hungry.”

“There’s a cultural norm around large portion sizes that’s just accepted,” says Shawn Casey, a One Medical health coach. This norm can derail dieters with the best intentions. “Even if you’re tracking your calories, your numbers can be inaccurate if you’re actually having three servings instead of one,” she says.

Luckily, there are some easy ways to retrain your brain and combat the effects of portion distortion wherever you are.

1. To combat portion distortion in restaurants:

  • Split entrées with a spouse or friend or ask for a to-go box at the start of your meal. “Go into the meal thinking ‘this should be two meals,’ and pack up half right away,” Casey says. “So many people say they grew up with the mindset that they shouldn’t waste food, but in many ways eating when you’re not hungry is a waste too. It would be less wasteful to share. It’s about shifting your mindset around what ‘wasteful’ really means.”
  • Ask for a second plate – even if you’re dining alone. “Gauge own hunger immediately ask for a share plate and put half your meal on the other plate,” says Paige Bossart, a nutritionist with Rise, One Medical’s health coaching app. “Eat the half you have first. It doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t touch the other half, but wait a few minutes and ask, ‘am I even hungry or would this be a fantastic lunch tomorrow?’ If you find that you do want more, first try cutting half that portion.”
  • Be mindful of what you’re eating. “Put down your fork and take a deep breath,” Casey says. “Try and taste your food and have a moment of enjoyment with what you’re eating.”

2. To combat portion distortion at home:

  • Downsize your plates. “Try using salad plates instead of entrée plates,” Casey says. “This will give you a more realistic sense of serving size especially if you’re used to having a full plate. It will also help you moderate your portions.” if you haven’t broken the habit of going for seconds.”
  • Pack up leftovers immediately. “When you’re done cooking, take the portion you want to eat and immediately package up the remaining food,” Casey says. “If you let it sit on the stove, you’re more likely to eat more of it.” Young also suggests not serving food family style. “Plate out your portion in the kitchen,” she says. “If you are still hungry, you can get up for more.”
  • Focus on your food. “Shut off the TV!” Casey says. “For one thing, the ads can make you want to eat more, even if you’re not hungry. For another, it makes you much less mindful about the food you’re eating and your hunger and fullness cues.”

3. To combat portion distortion wherever you are:

  • Build a balanced, “healthy plate.” The ideal meal is half veggies, ¼ lean protein and ¼ carbs. “Sometimes you can do this, but, very often you can’t like with a burrito or a bowl of spaghetti, or a salad,” Casey says.
  • Use your hand as a portion guide. “Using your hand as a guide is really helpful,” Bossart says. “You always have it and it can be a helpful reference to remind you of serving sizes,” she says. “It can also allow you to start eyeballing measurements while cooking without feeling like it’s a whole big process.”

For example, a good portion size for fruits, cooked rice, and other carbohydrates or starchy foods is one cup, which is approximately the size of your fist. If you’re drizzling some olive oil on a salad, aim for one tablespoon, which is about the size of your thumb. After a while, you’ll be much more aware of general serving sizes, which makes eating well at home or out on the town a whole lot easier.

For more in-depth nutrition and healthy lifestyle advice, book an appointment with a One Medical provider.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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