Week eight: A super-sized world

Juicy cheeseburger

For those of you out there who remember the days when there were relatively few cooking shows on television (yes, I remember, yes, I am dating myself).  As a matter of fact, I remember when there was no cable or satellite tv, but we’re not going to go there.  Not today, anyway.

Anywho, one of my favorite cooking shows that I tuned in for whenever I could (in the days before DVR) was Justin Wilson’s Homegrown Louisiana Cookin’.  Justin Wilson, a true Cajun from southeastern Louisiana, had a flair for comedic storytelling, politics and cooking.  As a budding foodie, I was especially intrigued by a talent that he would display on just about every episode.  Justin would say, “Now, we just need to add a little salt to the pot, ‘bout a teaspoon!”  He would pour a little salt directly into his hand and, to prove that it was actually a correct measurement, transfer the salt from his palm into a teaspoon.  Boom, a perfect teaspoon, right on the money every time.

Have you ever tried to do that?  I have, and with years of cooking experience behind me it’s still kinda hit and miss.  I have found that most people are notoriously bad at estimating measurements, especially when it comes to meal portions.  For example, try to pour what you think is a serving of breakfast cereal into a bowl – don’t cheat and look at the nutrition panel first!  After your estimated serving, take a look at the serving size and measure it out into another bowl.  I’m willing to bet that your estimated serving is much larger!  But just why we are terrible at it is really not that big of a mystery.

How many times have you gone to a restaurant and completely finished a meal without being overly full?  In the past 30 years, especially so in the last 20, the average portion size has grown so much that one plate is enough to feed more than one person, mostly two and sometimes even three people (http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/educational/wecan/eat-right/distortion.htm).  With restaurants offering enormous plates of food, drink cups in huge sizes, snacks sold in king-sized packages and super-sized meals, it can be hard to know how much to eat sometimes.

Before we get into serving sizes, let’s first understand the difference between portion and serving.  Simply put, a portion is how much you decide to eat or drink at any given time, and a serving is a recommended measured amount of food and drink.  A portion is your choice, but the serving is what you’re nutritionally supposed to have at that given time.

I’m not only going to pick on restaurants and blame them for people eating more; it has become the standard to eat more at home as well.  Dinner plates have grown, cars have larger cup holders to accommodate the drink sizes stores sell, even muffin tins are much bigger.  As everything increases in size, bigger starts to seem like the norm, distorting how we think about a serving size or the “right” amount.  Also, at every meal you increase the portion sizes and you’re getting a lot more calories than you need per day.  Even if you just add an extra 100 calories per day that can translate into an extra 10 pounds in a year.  If you do that every year for five years, you’re 50 pounds overweight before you know it!

To underscore just how much portion sizes have changed over the years, here’s a link to “Portion Distortion,” an interactive quiz comparing portion sizes and calories from 20 years ago to today.


To further understand just how much portions sizes have changed, the image below compares a few fast-food item sizes from 20 years ago to today.


Another sobering fact directly related to serving sizes and portion control is that the obesity rate is on the rise.  Obesity rates for men and women in the U.S. had been roughly the same for about a decade. But in recent years, women have surged ahead and now just over 40 percent of women are obese, compared to 35 percent of men.  In addition:

  • About 38 percent of all adults are obese.
  • About 17 percent of children are obese, which is the same as earlier reports.
  • Obesity rates have been steadily increasing in adolescents since 1988 and now are at 21 percent, but have been stable in kids ages 6 to 11 in recent years at 20 percent.


So just what are you supposed to do, carry measuring cups and spoons everywhere you go?  You could, but there’s a much simpler way that’s easy to remember.  It’s called the “helping hands” chart, which helps you to visualize measurements by comparing it to your hand.  For instance, a ½ cup measure is roughly equivalent to what you can fit in one cupped palm.  A one-cup measure is equivalent to the size of the average fist.  The entire chart is below; print it out and keep it in your wallet or purse for reference.

hands measuring chart

Other than practicing portion control, there are some other ways that you can cut your portions down to size.

  • Read nutrition labels for the exact serving size of the food/drink. Most fast food restaurants have this information posted for convenience.  Even if you’re eating out and choose a salad, remember the nutrition label does not include the dressing.  If you’re given a packet, remember this adds calories and saturated fat.  A handy way to look up a portion size and nutrition information, whether at home or in a restaurant, Google it!
  • Use smaller plates. Don’t eat from oversized dinner plates; use a salad plate which typically will hold the recommended serving sizes.
  • Slow down! Feeling full doesn’t come from your stomach; it comes as a result of your brain reacting to the chemicals released when food or drink enters your stomach.  It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to register and react to the chemicals.  Eat slower and give your brain time to send the “full” signal.
  • Don’t serve meals family style. You’re more likely to overeat and take unnecessary second helpings if the food is on the table.  Bring the plate to the table with the correct serving sizes and don’t go back for seconds.  If you do want to go back, take seconds of vegetables or salads.
  • Avoid the mindless munch – don’t eat in front of the television or computer. Most people eat almost 30 percent more while distracted by television or the computer.
  • Don’t skip meals. If you’re starving to death, you’ll probably eat more than you should quicker than you should.  If you have regular meals (breakfast, lunch, supper and two snacks) you’ll be more satisfied and less likely to overeat.
  • Repackage bulk items. Large bags of items can be more economical, but they can also lead to overeating.  Repackage them into smaller, serving-sized containers or bags.
  • Share! If you’re eating out, split a main course with your dining partner.  If you’re eating alone, eat half and take the rest home for another meal.  You’ll keep your portions under control and save money at the same time!

Keep in mind that not only do the calories you take in per day affect your weight, they also affect your overall health.  The combination of choosing healthy foods and keeping the portion sizes under control will help you eat what you need, at the same time keep you at a healthy level both physically and spiritually!

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