Business of Well-being

Portion Distortion

As portions have grown larger over the past decades, so have many populations over the globe supersized. One of the reasons for the worldwide increase in waistlines and poor health is deception; we're being hoodwinked into eating more than we need.

That simple movie snack and drink combo could in fact be the same as eating a full day's food intake in one sitting and opting for the combo special you ordered at the drive-thru may appear to be value-for-money, but you'll get value-for-waistline at the same time.

Perhaps this trend should be called "portion creep", because it takes only an additional 240 calories a day to gain about 10 kg over a year. These 240 calories can be found in a 50g chocolate bar, a sparsely buttered bread roll, a small kiddie milkshake, a quarter of a tramezzini or a small portion of 10 chips.

According to a position paper in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association titled "Weight Management", restaurant and takeaway outlet food and drink portions now exceed standard serving sizes by at least twofold. "Portion distortion" is a new term created to describe the perception that large portions are appropriate amounts to eat at a single sitting.

The paper further emphasized that this distortion is reinforced by packaging, dinnerware and serving utensils that have also increased in size. For instance, one cup of pasta provides about 143 calories and is the recommended starch serving for a meal.

Some restaurants now serve four cups of pasta as a meal, racking up 1,125 calories when you account for the sauce and trimmings. Considering that a lady wanting to lose weight would need to consume about 1,375 calories per day (1,786 calories per day for men), understanding the caloric content of the foods we eat away from home is really important.

A Few Examples of Distorted Portions:

Consumers seem to have no idea that a coffee shop muffin is equal to five slices of buttered bread and jam and provides almost 1,190 calories if served with a small portion of cheese, jam and a pad of butter.

The smarter choice would be to split these large muffins into quarters and have them as occasional treats.

Movie combos are also a calorie-laden trap. Even if the average medium combo is shared between two adults, each person will still be consuming the energy equivalent of a whole meal. Whether you add fat-free sweets or chocolate, the energy added is almost identical.

The soft drink and chocolate or sweets contribute at least 24 teaspoons of sugar! A healthy sugar intake is not more than two teaspoons per meal or snack.

The smarter choice: the smallest popcorn with a sugar-free cold drink, or better still, water.

Fried chicken and chips. Three pieces of fried chicken with a full portion of chips is equivalent to more than three meals. The energy provided by a meal like this (about 1,200 calories) is almost the total daily energy allowance for a woman on a slimming diet. Sure, we know that fried food is bad for us; but do we know that deep frying chicken trebles the fat content, and with the chips included the fat content of this meal is five times the recommendation for a healthy meal?

The smarter choice: 1 piece of fried chicken along with a large salad.

Cheeseburger with chips. A combo such as this provides more than 714 calories without a serving of vegetables. The fat content of this meal is almost three times the recommendation for a healthy meal.

Chicken fillet burgers are not necessarily a healthier option, as the chicken fillet is usually cooked with oil and larger in size than a hamburger patty. Hot chips are the biggest culprit in making meals away from home unhealthy. In most cases chips are unnecessary, as they only add excessive calories and fat.

Eating only a few hot chips from somebody else's plate may be equivalent to a whole starch portion with fat. Think twice before nibbling!Having a few slices of regular pizza is an acceptable treat, but when we start having double cheese, extra meaty, triple-decker, sausage-encrusted pizza with dipping sauces, we've moved into some seriously dangerous food territory.

Just one slice (one-eighth) of a double-decker pizza is already equivalent to a light meal, although it is totally lacking in vegetables!Even salads can be distorted. Although all salads are perceived as being healthy, those with generous (protein) toppings and dressing can be equivalent to a restaurant main meal.

Think twice about adding salad dressing, as most are concentrated sources of fat. A restaurant serving of salad dressing can add up to 240 calories.

Rather than cutting out food groups and going on extreme deprivation diets, learn to "smartsize" your portions. Ready to downsize? Here are some easy ways to get started.

Smartsize, don't supersize - When faced with an option to supersize, be guided by your real hunger. Do you really need a meal with all the extras? Order the regular- or child-sized portions. Mega-sized servings are probably more than you need.

Preferably, take your fast foods home or back to the office and serve on a plate with a large salad, a generous serving of cooked vegetables or a piece of fresh fruit. For a lighter restaurant meal, order a healthy appetizer in place of a main course. Hunger may drive you to eat too much bread before your meal arrives. Hold the bread or chips until your meal is served or don't eat them at all.

Sharing is caring - Don't buy into the idea that what the restaurant is serving you is an appropriate amount of food to eat, as it is possible that you're getting three to four servings at one meal. Most takeaway or restaurant portions can in fact be shared between two people. Should you not be able to share, eat your meal over two sittings rather than one. For example, have half the tramezzini now and the other half a few hours later.

Downsize your dishes and glasses. Use smaller plates and bowls to help you eat less. We tend to fill up the dish we're using and then eat it all. Our brains also think we are getting more when the same amount of food is placed in a smaller dish. Choose your glass wisely too. Here's another place where our eyes play tricks on us. When glasses are short and wide, we tend to fill them with more fluid and to drink more. Use a slender glass or even a wine glass for any beverage besides water.

Trim your trigger foods - It may be that we love the taste of favorite foods such as breads, sweets, biscuits or pasta; munch mindlessly in front of the TV; or just hang on to a childhood habit. Consider keeping a food journal that includes portion sizes, perhaps even take pictures and get a dietician to glance over it to help identify the correct portions for you. If eating less seems frustrating, start slowly.

Eat a few spoonfuls less of pasta, or go with half a sandwich instead of a whole. Cutting portions of foods with hefty calories helps you cut calories. There's a bonus to this approach, too: as long as you don't go overboard, this simple lifestyle change lets you eat almost anything.

See less, eat less - We tend to eat whatever portion is placed before us, so the trick is to avoid seeing more food than you want to eat. Tweak this approach for all foods, snacks included. Place a small amount in a bowl instead of grazing from bags or boxes.

Leave some food on your plate. This is especially important if you grew up in the "clean plate club." By leaving even a few bites, you can focus more on your internal signals of satisfaction and less on eating food just because it is there. Also, eat slowly and mindfully, as it takes 15 to 20 minutes for your brain to register when you are full.

About the Author

Celynn Erasmus is a registered dietician, author and professional speaker. She has a passion for demystifying the complex science of wellness and nutrition into sustainable tips and techniques for people on-the-go. Connect with Celynn at or join the Wellculator community at

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