Strategies to Overcome Portion Distortion

By Christine M. Palumbo, RD

As the obesity epidemic in America continues to grab headlines, nutrition experts are quick to identify “portion distortion” as a potential contributing factor. Consumers need to cut back on portion sizes in order to control their weight, but in a society full of super-sized portions, this is often easier said than done.

Losing Weight With Easy Ways to Downsize Your Servings

Research findings published in the journal Psychological Science show that people display “unit bias” that causes them to think that a single unit of food is the right amount to eat or drink –regardless of its size. Think of the generously sized slice of pizza that’s sold in shopping malls: In your mind, it’s only one.

In a different study, people consistently ate more candy when it was served with a bigger serving spoon or in larger packages. In yet another, Cornell University researchers found that larger serving utensils and bowls prompted even health professionals to eat more ice cream!

Here are some tips to help you cut back on your portion sizes without feeling deprived and hungry all the time.

1. Evaluate your shopping habits
You know those club stores where you snag those great (and “ginormous”) bargains? At least one study found that the more people bring into their home, the more food they eat. Club store shopping not your thing? You may be purchasing – and eating – more than you realize from your own local supermarket. The New York Times recently reported on a growing phenomenon: Grocery stores are advertising sale items in large quantities in order to get people to purchase more. For example, “Buy ten packages of gummy bears candy for $10.” Guess who’s getting fooled and buying more than they need to?

2. Be a smart snacker
A lot of people will really make the effort to eat healthy meals, but then they blow it in the evenings when they reach for a snack. At one time, many nutrition experts recommended the 100 calorie packs on grocery store shelves. Now we realize that many of them are so-called junk foods devoid of healthful nutrients. Better prepare your own calorie-controlled snack bags by measuring out 100-150 calorie portions of healthful foods like nuts, whole grain crackers and the like.

All single size snack bags are not equal. Take potato chips, for example. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) defines a serving as one ounce. That’s the smallest sized bag moms might place in their child’s lunch box, 150 Calories. But chip makers also package them in larger sized bags. At a home improvement store, I recently saw a 2-¼ ounce bag clearly meant for one person. Eat the entire bag and you’ve consumed 240 calories!

Whatever you do, avoid snacking directly from a big bag of chips or box of cookies while you’re watching TV. That’s a recipe for disaster.

3. Re-evaluate your dinnerware
It’s amazing how large our plates, bowls, glasses and utensils have become in recent years. They’re much larger than those used by our grandparents. My daughter found this out the hard way this summer when she bought her first home. The beautiful white china plates she carefully chose and registered for in advance of her wedding are just a tad too large to fit into her new kitchen cabinets!

Instead of eating meals from dinner plates, use a salad plate instead. You’ll still get the satisfaction of having a full plate of food, but you’ll save yourself lots of calories with this one simple trick. The same goes for bowls, glasses and serving spoons.

When you sit down for a meal, don’t keep the pots and containers of food sitting in front of you on the table. That will prompt you to get seconds. Instead, keep them in the kitchen where they’re out of sight.

4. Beware when you’re eating out
One of the easiest ways to control your calorie intake is to limit the number of meals you eat at restaurants and fast food places. Americans still eat out frequently and also get take-out meals from restaurants more than ever. So you need to be able to manage your eating habits when you’re not preparing the food yourself.

One way to get around this is to ask that the waiter put half of your meal into a take-home container before he even brings it to the table. Serving sizes in restaurants are almost always enormous, so this is one trick that can be really helpful for keeping your calories under control when eating out.

Consider ordering an appetizer instead of an entrée. Foods on the appetizer menu can be large enough for several people to share, so they’re often a reasonable dinner size for one person. Or try ordering an appetizer plus salad or soup for a satisfying – and less costly – meal.

It’s also important to be careful if you’re drinking alcohol with your meal. Like everything else, drink portions have expanded and are larger than you think. Not only does that add overall calories from the alcohol itself, but drinking also lowers your inhibitions and your ability to control your food intake. It’s a lot easier to overeat when you’ve had a few drinks.

Remember that weight loss doesn’t have to mean completely changing your diet. By watching out for portion distortion, you’re taking an important step to controlling your weight. The National Heart Lung and Blood Institute has a great slide show at where you can see just how portion sizes have grown over the years.

Christine M. Palumbo, MBA, RD is a Registered Dietitian and award-winning speaker, columnist, business consultant and nutrition counselor. She is a frequent guest on television, including the Oprah Winfrey Show, Fox News and CNN. She writes for Chicago Parent and Environmental Nutrition. or more information, please visit

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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