This was a big “ah ha” moment for me when I first started on my health journey – portion size! I think I had just gotten used to eating what was on my plate and blindly assumed if a restaurant was serving it on a plate it must be the correct portion for an individual. BIG MISTAKE! Over the past few decades, portion sizes of everything from muffins to sandwiches have grown considerably and I think we’ve all forgotten what a correct portion looks like. These portion comparisons, adapted from the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) Portion Distortion Quiz, give a visual representation of what sizes used to be compared to what they are today.
Cup of Coffee
Twenty years ago Today
Coffee with milk and sugar Grande café mocha with whip, 2% milk
8 ounces 16 ounces
45 calories 330 calories
When our parents ordered a coffee two decades ago, they weren’t given as many size options—a standard cup was eight ounces, the size of a small coffee cup. Nowadays, most of us feel like we don’t get our money’s worth unless the cup is at least twelve ounces; it’s not unusual to see thirty-two ounce coffee cups, four times the size they used to be. When mocha-ized, the morning coffee has as many calories as a full meal – ouch!
Twenty Years Ago Today
5 cups Tub
270 calories 630 calories
This is a hard one for me but I’ve started bringing my own air popped when we go to the movies. Don’t judge, I buy a large water! Supersized popcorn is an extra 360 calories. Studies indicate that when given food in larger containers, people will consume more. In a 1996 Cornell University study, people in a movie theater ate from either medium (120g) or large (240g) buckets of popcorn, then divided into two groups based on whether they liked the taste of the popcorn. The results: people with the large size ate more than those with the medium size, regardless of how participants rated the taste of the popcorn.
Because portions are now so large, it’s hard to understand what a “serving size” is supposed to be. Did you realize that today’s bagel counts for three servings of bread? Larger sizes at restaurants have also contributed to larger sizes when eating at home.
According to a 2007 paper published in the Journal of Public Health Policy, portion sizes offered by fast food chains are two to five times larger than when first introduced. When McDonald’s first started in 1955, its only hamburger weighed around 1.6 ounces; now, the largest hamburger patty weighs 8 ounces, an increase of 500 percent. And while a Big Mac used to be considered big, it’s on the smaller side of many burger options. At Burger King, you can get the Triple Whopper; at Ruby Tuesday’s there’s the Colossal Burger; and Carl’s Junior has the Western Bacon Six Dollar Burger.
It’s not just food portions that have increased; plate, bowl, and cup sizes have as well. In the early 1990s, the standard size of a dinner plate increased from 10 to 12 inches; cup and bowl sizes also increased. Larger eating containers can influence how much people eat. A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that when people were given larger bowls and spoons they served themselves larger portions of ice cream and tended to eat the whole portion. A study comparing eating habits today with twenty years ago found that participants poured themselves about 20 percent more cornflakes and 30 percent more milk than twenty years ago.
What is normal?
Increased portion sizes give us more calories, encourage us to eat more, distort perceptions of appropriate food quantities, and along with sedentary lifestyles, have contributed to our national bulge. Unless you’re trying to gain weight, it might help to reacquaint yourself with serving sizes. The NHLBI tells us that a serving of meat should be the size of a deck of cards while one pancake should be the size of a CD. It’s unlikely that we’ll see a scaling down of food to these sizes anytime soon, so perhaps we should all become familiar with another image: the doggy bag.