Portion Distortion:
How Much Should You Eat?

portion distortion

Portion distortion is becoming a problem everywhere. No matter how healthy it is, eating too much food goes against healthy eating guidelines. Food portions have gotten way out of control, particularly in the United States. When eating out, you are almost guaranteed to be served at least twice the calories you need for that meal. Most food portions are now from two to eight times larger than the standard recommended serving sizes according to the USDA's dietary guidelines.

Unfortunately, we have also grown up with admonishments from our parents to “clean our plates” and to never waste food since there are hungry people elsewhere in the world. However, obesity is caused by eating more calories than your body needs. Cheap food and “Super-sized” portions characterize the chain restaurant culture, and we tend to eat whatever we are served regardless of how hungry we are.

It is estimated that most Americans consume 300 more calories per day than they did 25 years ago, which may be part of the reason why 66% of the population is overweight.

The portion distortion in restaurants has gotten simply ridiculous. If you eat out often, you can control the amount you actually eat, and remember that you don't need to eat everything on your plate. You can take the remainder home for another meal, order half a portion, or share a dish with a companion. You can also try ordering soup or an appetizer or two. With the sizes served today, you might find you don't need anything more at all.

For example, for the average person with a 2000 calorie per day daily requirement, most dietary guidelines suggest that you get about 6 ounces of grains, 2.5 cups of vegetables, 2 cups of fruit, 3 cups of dairy and 5.5 ounces of protein per day (not per meal!). Now, I am not one to count calories and measure out my food, but you should keep these amounts in mind when you are eating a meal.

Remember that serving size and a portion size are not the same thing. A serving is what is recommended and a portion is what you actually eat. So a portion of cereal may actually consist of two serving sizes if you actually eat 1 1/2 cups when the serving size specifies ¾ cup. To get an idea of what a normal food portion is for the above foods so you can avoid portion distortion, it may be easier to relate them to parts of your hand or common objects. For instance:

1 cup = your fist or a baseball

  • Beverages
  • Cereal
  • Casseroles
  • Soups
  • Fresh fruit
  • Salads

½ cup = cupped hand or a tennis ball

  • Pasta
  • Rice
  • Beans
  • Potatoes
  • Cooked vegetables
  • Pudding
  • Ice cream

3 ounces = palm (without fingers) or a deck of cards

  • meat
  • fish



1 tablespoon = thumb or an ice cube

  • Salad dressing
  • Peanut butter
  • Sour cream
  • cheese

1 teaspoon = thumb tip or one die

  • Butter
  • Mayonnaise
  • Oil

Buy snack foods in small packages, or divide up larger packaged foods into smaller containers. Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, showed that when people buy large size bags of almost any food, they tend to eat more at one sitting, which can increase what they eat by up to 43%!

Once you believe in the power of nutrition and the benefits of healthy eating, the next step is to get to familiarize yourself with nutrition data so you know the foods that support good health. Then you'll be able to come up with a healthy eating plan that meets the dietary guidelines for maintaining good health, as well as catering to your personal tastes while meeting your nutritional needs.

Now that you are aware of some of the facts about healthy eating, you know that there is no additive or fortifier that protects our health and our waistline like the real thing: real, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean meats. If we focus on real food and exercise, and lighten up on the snacks and correct the portion distortion, we'll have a good chance of beating the obesity epidemic ourselves, and helping our kids beat it too. Look at our healthy eating tips to get some ideas as to how to use these healthy eating guidelines in your daily life.


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