Feature Archive

Portion Distortion

  1. Eat portions the size of a small fist.
  2. Watch out for inflation.
  3. Snack before dinner.
  4. Split the entree.
  5. Think small.
  6. Don't serve from the table.
  7. Beware of eating in front of the TV.

By R. Morgan Griffin
WebMD Feature

Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson, MD

Are you eating more than you think you're eating?

Thanks to inflated portion sizes, you probably are. It's all too easy to lose track of normal portion sizes when you're dining off of giant plates while chatting with family and friends. You just eat whatever is put in front of you, and only notice the effects later when your pants stoutly refuse to button.

"Portion distortion is a problem," says nutritionist Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, the "Recipe Doctor" at the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic. "It's one piece of the obesity problem in the U.S."

Despite all of the publicity -- one fast-food restaurant is even phasing out supersized meals -- these days, most of us would hardly recognize a normal portion. So often we split a pint of ice cream three ways and congratulate ourselves because we didn't eat the whole thing!

Unless we want to lug a kitchen scale around, we need to learn how to size up our meals no matter where we are. Here are Magee's top seven tips for keeping portions healthy and sensible.

Eat portions the size of a small fist.

The best way to figure out how much you're eating is to measure it. But since you may not always have the necessary equipment on you, the U.S. Department of Agriculture helpfully estimates portion size relative to common objects.

1/2 a cup of fruit, vegetables, pasta or rice = a small fist 3 ounces of cooked meat, poultry or fish = a deck of cards 1 tortilla = a small salad plate 1 medium bagel = a hockey puck 1 muffin = a large egg 1 baked potato = a computer mouse 1.5 ounces of cheese = 6 dice 1 teaspoon of margarine or butter = a thumb tip 2 tbsp. Peanut butter = a golf ball

Watch out for inflation.

The size of common foods like bagels and muffins has grown freakishly large in recent years. Your grandmother ate a three-inch bagel with 150 calories. Today, most bagels average four to five inches across and pack 300 to 400 calories. Never assume that a bagel is just a bagel or a soda is just a soda -- it could have twice as many the calories as you expect.

Also, remember that the plates in many restaurants are big and may give you a false sense of the amount you're eating. A normal-sized home-cooked dinner would look tiny and pitiful on the gargantuan plates used at many restaurants.

Snack before dinner.

If you're starving when you sit down at a restaurant, you're more likely to order more than you need. Will you really need that entree and that soup and that appetizer, or are you just so hungry now that you think you will?

Eat a snack of fruit or vegetables an hour or two you go out to eat. Spoil your dinner a little -- just enough to take the edge off your hunger so that you order sensibly.

Split the entree.

It was a cardinal rule in childhood: clean your plate. Nobody wants to waste food. But eating more than you need doesn't do anyone any good -- including you.

So think about splitting an entree with your dining companion. Or ask the waiter to put half into a doggie bag for your lunch the next day. Better yet, ask the waiter to bag half the entree before it comes to the table. Then you won't even be tempted.

Think small.

Although regular dining at fast food restaurants is probably not a great idea, fast food is a fact of life for many of us. The key is to just make smart choices when we're there.

When you find yourself at the drive-through window, order the smallest size. A kid's meal is just about the right size lunch for many adults. And it goes without saying: don't supersize anything. Supersized meals are no bargain when you consider that all those extra calories head straight for your waist.

Don't serve from the table.

Everyone likes the look of a well-set table with steaming dishes of food just waiting to be served. But it's too easy to reach for seconds when the platters of food are right there. Instead, keep the serving dishes on the kitchen counter. Prepare plates there, with normal portions, and bring them to the table. If you have to get out of your chair to get a second helping, you may find that you don't really want more food after all.


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