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Portion Distortion: Obesity's Best Friend

Aug 15, 2012 01:30PM ● By Cate Reynolds
Many subscribe to the theory that moderation is the key to happy living. The idea is especially applicable to a healthy diet. Yet for some reason, the concept of portion control seems to weigh heavily on the American lifestyle, and as a result, Americans are, well, weighing heavily.

According to a 2012 brief from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 35.7 percent of American adults are obese. Marylanders rank well below that average with an obesity prevalence of 27.1 percent. (A 1987 survey by the same group, however, put Maryland somewhere between 10 and 14 percent. That’s quite the leap.)

Generally, it’s believed that Americans underestimate their portions by 20 to 200 percent; and if you consider three meals and two snacks a day, those unaccounted for calories can quickly add up.

But what is it about judging the correct serving size that leaves us so stumped? There may be two reasons. First is packaging. If you aren’t a stickler for label reading, you might not know that there are three servings in each 24-ounce bottle of Coke. It seems only natural that once you twist the top, the contents are fair game. But, alas, sip slowly: those extra two servings can sneak in an additional 200 calories. Consider a family-size bag of chips; while economical, it’s hard to imagine that one bag may contain 18 servings.

The second suspected culprit of this overindulgence is dish size. Dinner plates can range widely in diameter and bigger pieces dwarf meals, prompting us to add more until the plate looks full and satisfying. Wine glasses are certainly no stranger to this phenomenon. As pretty as the 20-ounce goblets may be, four ounces (the acceptable serving of vino) looks like barely a splash and is easily doubled, even tripled, without notice.

The most effective way to control this tailspin is to measure. However, in this case, efficiency and effectiveness are not one. So health gurus from the American Cancer Society to the American Diabetes Association have come up with a range of visual cues to help identify portion size. Did you know that the appropriate portion of meat—three ounces—is about the size of a deck of cards? And if you’re a steak and potatoes fan, visualize a computer mouse when picking out a “medium” Idaho gem. For the sports nut, the cup breakdown is easy: a tennis ball represents about one cup and a golf ball, a quarter cup. Take a gamble on this: a teaspoon is the size of a single die; a serving of cheese, one and a half ounces, three dice; and mayo and oils, one tablespoon, a poker chip.

For dessert, enjoy a little ice cream; but stick to one half cup, which should fit into a muffin wrapper; hold the muffin top, please! If you measure each of your favorite foods once, you can compare the amount to any household item to eye future portions.

But recognizing a portion size doesn’t necessarily mean sticking to it. There are several ways to reinforce restraint. The easiest, though not most economical, is to buy single serving packages. If you consume from the full-size bag, scoop out the amount you want, then put away the source. You’re likely to eat less when you have to get up and unpack for more; eating from the container is the ultimate portion control no-no. And ditch the giant dish. Using a smaller plate will help you regulate while offering a more satisfying visual appeal. When you eat out, share entrees with friends, or ask your server to pack up half your meal before it hits the table.

Think you’re a portion pro? Take the Food and Drug Administration’s Portion Distortion quiz! Find it, along with other tips and information on recommended serving sizes at