The Portion Problem

Why do Americans find it so difficult to downsize at the dinner table?

By Elaine Magee, MPH, RD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Although many Americans are aware that the portions we eat in restaurants and at home have grown larger and larger in the last few years, it seems few of us are actually doing anything to make up for it.

A recent national survey by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) found that 45% of Americans are aware portion sizes have increased in restaurants, and 52% realize portion sizes have increased at home. Yet, for the most part, that didn't change their eating behavior. Only 25% of Americans say the portions they personally eat at restaurants have gotten smaller since 2003, and just 37% say they have cut back on portions at home.

When people were asked what determined how much they ate, nearly seven in 10 cited "the amount they were used to eating," according to the survey results. And the percentage of Americans who said they base the amount they eat on the amount they're served almost doubled in three years, from 30% in 2003 to 54% in 2006.

Why should we care about the size of our portions? Research suggests that people with more food in front of them tend to eat more, whether it's served to them on plates or they serve themselves from a container. In one study, researchers gave men and women different-sized submarine sandwiches (6, 8, 10, or 12 inches) once a week for four weeks. On days when they were served 12-inch subs, participants ended up eating more calories than on days they were served smaller subs.